David L. Ulin: Hi, everybody. I am David L. Ulin. I'm the books' editor of Alta Journal. And welcome to the July, 2021 edition of The California Book Club. We're delighted to have you all here. Tonight's guest is William Finnegan and he and John Freeman will be discussing his magnificent memoir, the Pulitzer prize winning Barbarian Days. Before we get started, a couple of housekeeping things I want to welcome you and give you a little information about The California Book Club and Alta in case you're not familiar. California Book Club is a once a month interview club featuring the books from the California cannon or from the emerging California cannon, the developing California cannon, and Alta is a quarterly journal published out of San Francisco. Also with a very active online component, which we cover California and Western arts and culture, and a particular focus on the literature of the west.
I want to thank before we do anything else. I want to thank our partners who are Book Passage, Books Inc, Narrative Magazine, Book Soup, The Los Angeles Public Library, The San Francisco Public Library, Book shop, Vroman's Bookstore, The Huntington USC Institute on California and the West and Zyzzyva. I'd also like to let you know that we have a sale for California Book Club members. For just $50 you can get a year of Alta Journal, a California Book Club tote bag, and one of our upcoming California Book Club books.
In order to track that down online, just check out Altaonline.com/tote. You can also watch tomorrow's thank you email for a link to this deal. And please, after the event tonight and all throughout, please visit the CBC clubhouse to keep the conversation going. This is a space for California book club members to dig even deeper into Barbarian Days, share questions, discuss tonight's event and the upcoming California Book Club books. You'll find links to sign up for the clubhouse in the comment section and in tomorrow's email. So, without further ado, let me turn it over to my colleague, John Freeman and to William Finnegan. And I'm looking forward to this conversation. Thank you all for being here.
John Freeman: Thanks, David. Hi, everyone. If you've been reading The New Yorker in the last, oh, 37 years, you've probably seen the name William Finnegan. He's the guy that The New Yorker sends when they want to profile a drag queen who became the most famous wrestler in Mexico, for example. He's the guy that's going to be hanging out with anarchists in Seattle, or maybe with gorilla bungee jumpers on a bridge over the East River and Manhattan. He's the guy that we'll get to with a story from two freight haulers getting food into Southern Sudan during the civil war.
And he's the guy that basically works his way into one of the most powerful and dangerous organized crime families in Mexico during the narco trade. In the last 40 years, William Finnegan has become a kind of poet of forgotten wars, stories of justice and racism run a muck. He's written four books, books that have been based on his travels from the journey he took from Sri Lanka to Cape Town during the middle days of apartheid and the story of working in a school there to his travels with black journalists during the days of apartheid called Dateline Soweto. He covered the civil war in Mozambique, which killed over a million people and wrote about that in a wonderful book for the University of California.
But all along this time, William Finnegan has been doing something else, which is that when he can get away from his job or even do it with his job, he's been going to the beaches and surfing. He's been doing it on the coast of California, where he grew up in Southern California since he was 10 years old on the beaches of Hawaii, where his family moved when he was just then in junior high school. And his father was a producer for a radio program. And he was probably one of the only white kids in his class, taking his board out to the beach back when walking to the nose of a board and back was the cool move. And for 50 years onward, he continued to surf. He traveled the world surfing. He met friends who were surfers, who caught the surf bug. He learned from these men and women sometimes, but mostly men.
And he traveled with them and he saw the world with them. And he's written an extraordinary book about this period of his life, which is still ongoing, because the book ends. And I'm not going to reveal anything here in saying that he's still surfing now, as far as we know, but it's a book about friendship. It's a book about the ocean. It's a book about the history of surfing. It's a book about passion and addiction, curiosity about the magical, strange, and violent nature of the ocean. And it's a book about growing up as a white guy in a certain time and place and traveling the world in that body and what it means to discover the world beyond his own safety. I'm so pleased to be joined with him tonight, because I think he's one of the most extraordinary writers of reportage. And obviously now having read this book again of surfing, please join me in welcoming William Finnegan. How are you?
William Finnegan: I'm pretty good and you?
John Freeman: I'm well, I want to apologize for one, because we scheduled you in the summer being non surfers and we thought what would be better than a book about surfing in the summer? And of course you crack open Barbarian Days and the first thing you learn, or one of the first you learn is that the best waves come in the winter, not in the summer. And I wonder if there's a few things you might, for those of us who are not surfers, that you can set us straight with from the get-go either addressing us as non surfers or maybe things that you learned early on when you were walking the nose, if you will, on your board.
William Finnegan: Well, that was a long time ago and longboard days. My father took credit for me learning to surf. He said there was a day early on when I got sort of beaten up in Ventura and I was all cut and crying and wanted to come in and he wouldn't let me in the car. He sat there and his fisherman's sweater smoking his pipe and said, go back and get three more. And I don't remember this episode, but it's so gruesome. And I don't ever would give him that credit, but there's that little thing, which was that surfing is hard to learn. It's something that's kind of best taken up young and I've run into people all the time. It seems like now who say, oh, you're a surfer. My wife and I learned to surf last summer in Costa Rica is some middle-aged couple in New York city.
And that's not what we're talking about. That's not what we're talking about at all. I don't mean to be horribly exclusive about it, but it's not something you learn in a week in Costa Rica. And I don't even think it's something your dad can make you do. You have to be kind of, you have to have the neurochemical bias toward it. It's like you can't resist it after a while. And it can really lead you astray. It is a tricky thing to have alongside the rest of your life. And you become a bit of a zombie, I think, to lots of non surfers. When you go into the zone, I see people's eyes glaze over when I meet a fellow surfer and we started talking and everybody just wants to check out of the conversation. We get more and more excited about it. I'm looking forward to talking to Jamie. I hope we don't talk surf and make everybody's eyes glaze over, but it's been a sort of a way into all kinds of things for me. That's not why I started it.
John Freeman: Yeah. Let's talk about that. This book is remarkable for a lot of different reasons. One of which is that it describes a number of many sets that you surfed throughout your life dating back almost 50 years. And you can do that because it's based upon a prodigious amount of journals that you kept and letters. And you've always been a journal keeper informed, obviously your first book of reportage crossing the line about teaching in a school in the township in their early 1980s. Can you tell me a bit about learning to surf and learning to write at the same time and how those two things were connected and why you described in such a detailed fashion in your journals, what you were doing as a surfer?
William Finnegan: Well, actually my journals about surfing aren't so good. That is to say, I did always keep extensive journals and I leaned on them heavily for this book, but even better were a lot of letters that I got back from people, especially one bundle that came out of the blue about, I don't know, 10 years ago from a guy who was my best friend in high school and in junior high. And it was this huge bundle of letters that I'd apparently written. I didn't remember writing them, but here they were. Dozens and dozens of letters. I mean, literally hundreds of pages written when I was 13, 14, we'd moved to Hawaii and he was back on the mainland and I was just apparently writing them every night, all my adventures. And I think some of them were true. It's hard to sort out and the writing is absolutely miserable.
Just every single thing was bitchin', every wave, every girl, everything about Hawaii, but I really, I wrote a lot and it was all bound up in, not just in surfing, but in everything that was going on. But surfing was a sort of main event in my life in those days. And carried me. I had a tough time at school in Honolulu there. Not a terrible time, but I got in a lot of fights and it was kind of racialized and ganged up. But as soon as I got out of school, I was in the water, we lived near a pretty good surf spot. And out in the water I made friends, these three Hawaiian brothers, the [colloquys 00:41:54] became my best friend. The middle one was my age. He was my best friend.
And it was just this passage into another world. And it was a lot of, you had to learn to respect people in the water and know who was who, and know what to do, but it was where life was jagged and kind of creepy and compromised in all kinds of ways at school. In the water, I don't know, there just wasn't any racial tension that I remember. I didn't remember any other white people. It was just where I felt like I belonged. You could earn your way there. Kind of honest.
John Freeman: Your book is a kind of history of these friendships that you've developed, because as you mentioned, the friends you make in Hawaii. I think you just referred to Dominic, your friend in Los Angeles, who you're writing letters to. And you do a very hilarious job seeing around the braggadocio in those letters. And then you make another fan named Brian that you go traveling with. And I wonder if you can talk a little bit about these friendships and why surfing or how surfing conditioned them versus another sport. Do you think they're at all different, if you had been maybe playing baseball together or football? What's different about the kind of friendship one develops when you're on a board sitting, waiting for a swell?
William Finnegan: Well, it's not just out in the water, it's the whole structure. I mean, it's the furthest thing from a team sport. I mean, there are clubs and we sort of aspire to join these clubs when we're kids, but we're just as well not invited. That is to say you really kind of, like before you can drive your hitch hiking around, you're bumming up and down trying to find rides. This is in California. And it's a lot more than just out in the water. You're camping. There's a spot you want to get to that's five miles down the railroad track.
And it turns into some epic kid adventure and you share all that stuff together. And this sort of mania to find waves is considerable. I mean, it never seems strange until somebody points it out or you look back on it, but you do go to extreme lengths to ... and you do it together. So, these friendships really get tested. And then there's a thing in the water. And you want that great wave, but it's much greater if your friend sees you get that great wave. So, it's a dense sort of homoerotic world you live in, at least that I did for many years. And most of my strongest friendships are with other surfers.
John Freeman: And you've started traveling very early. You, at 17, went off to Europe and were bumming around Turkey with, I think on your own and with a girlfriend. And you come back and you work as a brakeman on the Southern Pacific railroad. To a reader in 2021. And this sounds very Kerouacian. Did you have an idea of kind of the way that you were supposed to, that you wanted to live or of a certain notion of heroism or going out and seeing the world? Because that is part of the spirit of this book, that desire to see that's very enchanting, because it's not something that one feels anymore in a world where Google maps is around.
William Finnegan: Yeah. I don't, I mean, it didn't seem unusual what I was aspired to, and in fact I felt like a big cliche looking back at myself later. I mean, I was writing huge unpublishable novels at a young age and I was influenced I'm sure by Kerouac and Joyce and plenty of other great writers. And the railroad was, yeah, a little bit Kerouac, a little bit Cassidy. I had a grandfather who worked on the railroad. It was also a kind of something my knows that my parents are, I did a degree in English and then went and lied to get a job on the railroad saying I'd never been to college. And I loved that work, actually. It was like, I thought I'd never, ever find a job as ... it did suit my idea of how to live.
And it, as I say, it seems so natural to me that it never occurred to me that I was a bit of a self-parody. And I was heavily influenced more than by literature, I'd say, in my sort of bigger ambitions about where to go and where to be. By this movie, the surf movie that kind of crossed over called The Endless Summer, came out when I was, I don't know, 10 or 11, and was just completely warped my values and those of many other people. I think maybe Brian too, because this about supposedly about these guys who traveled around the world, surfing all over and they find the perfect wave in South Africa. It's all quite contrived really. Only occurred to me relatively recently that these guys were pro surfers who were hired for a job. A six week shoot, and they go here and there.
I thought, this is what you had to do. A certain point. You saved up some money and you hit the road. And Brian had that too. This is Brian Di Salvatore, my friend I went to the South Pacific with, also a writer. And it just felt obligatory. It felt like at a certain point, you have to. In fact, I left my railroad job with great regret, because it was time to travel around the world. We headed for the South Pacific. And as I say, it never seemed like anything unusual I was doing at the time. It felt kind of fore ordained.
John Freeman: If I recall you were in the South Pacific or Australia when your job, your one-year leave from the railroad job expired. And you sort of let go of it with a great deal of regret at the time, thinking, what am I doing? But I wonder if you could maybe read from the book now, because it is pretty extraordinary when you come across these passages of you surfing. And it's some of the most beautiful writing I've come across in a long time about the natural world. And yet it's also humans in it doing something.
William Finnegan: Oh, thanks. I will read something. I quit that job. I mean, I signed off. Left my years of [inaudible 00:48:27] came up when we were living in Australia, in Queensland in a little place called Kirra, which has a ... I had a job tending bar and washing dishes. And Brian was cooking in a Mexican restaurant there, but there was a incredible wave also called Kirra, which I'll describe here. We were there for a few months before it started breaking, and then it started breaking. And it's got references to like other waves that are in here, but you'll get the general idea I think. This is the wave called Kirra.
"It didn't have the open ocean size or broad faced beauty of a Honolulu bay. It was a far more compact ropier wave. The first hundred yards had an amphitheater feel with spectators lining the jetty at the point, the guard rail along the coast road, a steep green bluff that rows behind the road. And even sometimes a parking lot in front of the Kirra hotel. A large plain pub tucked under the bluff. Beyond that it was open beach. And when the swell was big and the angle was right, a ride could run on for another 200 yards unobserved an empty ecstatic racetrack. It wasn't a mechanical wave. It had flaws, variety, slow patches, close outs, concussion wavelets off the jetty or the inside bar often ran back out to sea marring the third or fourth waves of a set, but the cleaner waves had a quality of compression that was some ... "
The waves had a quality of compression that was sometimes literally stunning. The heaviest waves actually seemed to get shorter. They gathered so much force as they began to detonate across the main bar, a shallow stretch known as the Butterbox Section. Even with a sand bottom and a make-able looking wave, it was a deeply intimidating section. You had to come into it fast, but stay low on the face, be ready to duck when the thick lip through horizontally. And then somehow stay over your board through an ungodly acceleration. The Butterbox Section gave new meaning to the old surf implication, pull in. There was only one way to make it through the barrel, pulling in. I had served my share of front side tubes from that reliable inside section at Lahaina Harbor Mouth to a slabby mutant wave in Santa Cruz called Stockton Avenue, where I snapped boards in half on three foot days and was lucky not to get hurt on the shallow rock reef.
But Stockton was a short, freaky wave. A one trick pony. Kirra was just as hollow and it was a point break. It was as long as Rincon or Honolua, and hollower than either one. The bottom again was sand, not coral or cobblestone, an unprecedented setup in my experience at a great point break. The sand was not especially soft, I learned. I hit it so hard once in the Butterbox that I came up with a concussion, unable to say what country I was in.
Another time, also in the Butterbox and not on a big wave, I got my leash wrapped so tightly around my midsection that I couldn't breathe. On yet another occasion, same section, my leash tore through my rail and ripped half the tail off my favorite board. So the sand was a blessing, certainly, but the violence of the wave remained inseparable as always from its fierce appeal, that steel thread. The pecking order at Kirra was disconcerting long, and the guys on top tended to be national and world champions. Michael Peterson, a two time Australian championship, ruled the lineup when we started surfing there. He was a dark, brooding, brawny character with a thick mustache and a crazy look in his eye. He took any wave he wanted, and he surfed like a demon, with a wide power stance and savage hacks. One morning, I noticed him staring at me. We were near the takeoff spot and I was paddling hard as always trying to beat the pack to the next set wave.
But Peterson stopped paddling. "Bobby," he cried. I shook my head kept going. He looked like he'd seen a ghost. "You're not Bobby? You looked exactly like my mate, who's in jail. I thought they'd let him out, Bobby!" After that incident, I often found Peterson staring at me in the water. We became nodding acquaintances, even though I spooked him and I felt the pecking order ease around me when other guys noticed me and the legendary Derek Peterson exchanging little good days, I was happy to take the break, like everybody else. I just wanted more waves.
Brian and I had the advantage of living about as close to Kirra as it was possible to live, unless you lived in the Kirra Hotel, which had no rooms. I checked the jetty every night on my walk home from work, and if there was any hint of a swell we would hit it before first light. It turned out to be a great surf season, one of the best in memory, people said. With at least one solid swell virtually every week in January and February, one cyclone, Carrie, marched through the Solomon Islands, and then seemed to drift around the coral sea for weeks, pumping out powerful Northeast swell.
Our early morning go outs were often fruitful, yielding fresh waves with, for an hour or two, relatively few people. There was a regular pre-dawn crew. Not all of them, especially hot surfers. There was a gawky, friendly, bearded guy who wrote a big wave gun, hardly turning at all, and who always yelled as he jumped to his feet and said his line, "I got a lady doctor." I happened to know the next line of that song. She carried a pain for free. She did.
There you go.
John Freeman: I love that section because a lot of things emerge out of it, one of which is this book is rife with really rich slang.You call some people goofy foots, some are kooks. Very long boards are called guns as in elephant guns, can you maybe run down some of your favorite surfer slang? Maybe you don't even hear it anymore, but reading this book, it's like learning a whole new language that is spoken among surfers.
William Finnegan: Yeah. I have to correct a very long board's not a gun. It's a long board, a gun's a big wave board.
John Freeman: Right.
William Finnegan: Which can be long, but the idea is the thickness and the pointed nose, it's like pure speed, and a long board's a different beast, mainly for small waves. Anyway, it is kind of invisible to me in a way. I wrote this and I was kind of careful to introduce the jargon, the sort of technical terms, the lang too, it's very much written for non-surfing readers. So a lot of what was in there what I just read, I've already explained earlier what it means, I was sort of carefully explaining each thing, and then the second time I use a term, people, I'm hoping, have caught on and there's some pleasure in reading like that, I think.
But then this thing came out, and I heard from various people, "Oh, I love the way you say that the waves were buttery. How did you think of that?" And the answer is, it's a total cliche. It's just a word that we use for certain conditions, and there's lots and lots of that. So stuff that sounds original, or it sounds poetic, or sounds strange and mannered, or profound or whatever, most of it's just surf talk. I'm not trying to gild the lily and go beyond the way people talk to each other about waves. A little bit maybe, not every surfer would put it the way I would every time, but I'm trying to stick close to the language of the thing, no matter of what you want to call it, the craft, the guild, the tribe.
John Freeman: Mary writes in to us and says passionate about the sport is interesting, and I can relate as a competitive runner. I lived night and day to run, and in this section, and also throughout the South Pacific, as you're traveling with Brian, I started to worry that you guys weren't eating enough because at a certain point, it's like everything goes for finding the new place and you're parceling out water, you're parceling out food. And you see the photos which are throughout the book, which are quite spectacular. You look like you're about 98 pounds and 6'2". Does this at a certain point become almost, not religious, but, but in its essence like a quest?
William Finnegan: Well, it is this weird combination of things. It's self-indulgent to the max and it's also kind of ascetic. You pursue it to the bitter end. The Pacific, yeah, we had, we went out on water sometimes, and we camped for a while on an uninhabited island with one of the world's great waves, probably single big bit of surfing news in here, or news for surfers in here is that we found this great, great wave, which has since become crowded, but in those days there was nobody there. We were relying on local fishermen to bring us water and food and they didn't always come. But that kind of stuff got much more critical later, like the next year we were in Southeast Asia, and much more unhealthy, I got paratyphoid and I got malaria quite badly.
I was never 98 pounds, but I was down to 135, and I am over six feet. I've seen also a couple of photos from those days, I was a little scary, and we were just not living on very much. With living in villages, and strangely fishing villages often didn't have any fish or protein, just collard greens, and rice and some peppers. It that was enough, it was okay, we were young and strong, but I pushed it and ended up in the hospital a couple of times, and had to kind of pull back, and recuperate in Thailand for a while at one point.
So it is, at least the way we did it, we were pretty feral as they say, but there are guys who were more feral, who sort of don't come back and go to the hospital when it's time. So it's a strange obsession. It was like nothing matters more than hanging tight or going farther, not giving up when there's still a chance you might get great waves.
John Freeman: Another person from the audience has written in and said, the world was different when you were growing up and taking these trips, undiscovered areas, sadly that is no longer with the way you described. No communication, you could hitchhike, and how would you say young people now could have a path to discovery, and either the kind of journey that you took as a surfer or in general?
William Finnegan: Well, I think that the differences are pretty sharp. On that trip, I maybe spoke to my parents once a year on the phone, a phone call was a big deal. It cost money. So it was just, we wrote letters and those letters were kind of rich material later when I wanted to write about all this. That was all very well, and so it's different. Yeah. Lack of communications and all that. I heard my grandmother died three months after she died, just because we hadn't been anywhere you could collect mail for a long time. That was in Indonesia, I guess, but that's not good. It's not great to be that out of touch, and a lot of the places ... I had an idea, I think when we took off on that trip, that I just needed to quit that railroad job, and had an idea that I needed to see the world before it all turned into Los Angeles.
That was kind of my idea, which was idiotic. It's just ludicrous, that never happened and it was never going to happen. If you want to go to distant lawless, poor, unhealthy places to get great waves or whatever it is you're pursuing, they're definitely still out there, just as wild as they were. The Amazon hasn't gotten any smaller. That can be overblown, but we used to worry about it too. I remember we used to call it the discovery vacuum. There was nothing new to find. This was I guess in the '70s, and it wasn't true then, it's not true now.
John Freeman: Well, I'd like to bring on someone now who could maybe put in perspective some of the things that you've found and some of the waves you served, which is Jamie Brisick, who's a writer whose work has appeared in the New Yorker and the New York Times, and has written several books about surfing, including Becoming Westerly, Peter Drouyn's Transformation into Westerly Windina, and several other books, and has won a Fulbright fellowship in 2008. I'm hustling through your introduction because I think you have a lot more to say about surfing than anyone here. Jamie, could you please join us and say hello? And I think you probably have some questions for Bill as well.
Jamie Brisick: Yes, I do, and thank you, John, and Bill, it's so great hearing all this. Yeah. I sort of come from the inside of the surf world, I started surfing very young, I became a professional surfer and I surfed a lot of the breaks that Bill describes in the book. I came to writing much later and sort of trying to figure out how to ... and writing for surf magazines, being a surf magazine editor, the really striking thing for me when I read the book was just how vividly you could describe riding a wave.
That's something that for most surf journalists who write for surf magazines has I have, we don't really do that much of, and we're almost afraid of it. It's almost as if that would be, it would feel like the Penthouse forum sex scene or something like that. You don't want to go near trying to write like that, and you do it so well and so vividly, but like never too much. I think the thing you don't want to do is write too much because then it becomes this purple thing that doesn't work. But how did you manage to do that?
William Finnegan: Well, I was writing for non-surfers, that's a big thing, and it's true that, I didn't think about it really, but once you point it out that, in surf magazines ... those sort of magazines are drying up we should mention, along with a lot of other magazines, But what we grew up on, it's true. Nobody ever wrote about what riding a wave feels like, because everybody already knew, and it just would've been, I don't know, somehow mutually embarrassing. So it was kind of left, and the real subject was everything just off the main thing.
But you're free when can step out and explain basics to people who aren't familiar with it, and free to go a certain distance into the feeling of riding waves and the subtleties of it, none of which is any news to surfers at all, but it is to other people. So that kind of liberated me, and by the time I wrote this book, I had some experience, I'd written a few other books, I've written at the New Yorker for a long time, and I think had learned some restraint that I wouldn't have had earlier in my life when I wrote more purply, if that's a word. It's good to see you, Jamie.
Jamie Brisick: Yeah. You too Bill. Yeah. It was in particular, there's a particular wave, I want to say it's Restaurants at Fiji where, and I've ridden that break, and your description is almost more vivid than actually riding one of those waves. It was really impressive, I enjoyed it so much. The other thing I wanted to ask you about is, as a fellow writer and fellow surfer, the kind of writing in the morning, going surfing in the afternoon, vice versa, that thing of sort of being at your desk and in your head and then going in the water and having the horizon and all the openness of being on water, the bobbing on water, the fact that it's not solid underneath you, but it's moving all the time. How does that work for you?
William Finnegan: Alas, it doesn't work much these days. I'm living in Manhattan and there is good surf run around here, mainly in the fall and winter, but it's a sort of dash and it's in the shorter days. So it's not as easy to combine with a good work day, a good writing day as some other places I've lived. San Francisco, for instance, where we lived right by the beach and it was kind of cheap then, down by the beach then, I don't know about now, and get in the water for a couple hours. It was cold, wetsuits weren't very good, and so you really feel like you've done something and you're exhausted physically. That for me is crucial to be able to sit quietly at my desk and get something done. I haven't got any nervous energy, because I've been surfing. That's been a good rhythm for me, and it is, as you say, that sort of watery element and then the solid world, and you feel placed back in the solid world in some kind of ... You might be beat up, you might be exhausted, but in some kind of privileged way, you were lucky to have done this other thing in this other element and getting cold and warming up is a big part of it for me.
I get that sometimes and I still have to work here even when the waves are good. So I lie to my editors to slip away in the day, but then I got to work at night. I went to [inaudible 01:07:48] a lot, a bunch of winters in the '90s from here, before we had a kid, and there I had a real ... I there for the surf, and when there weren't waves I wrote, and when there were waves that was out in the water and that was ideal.
Jamie Brisick: Yeah. There is something so nice about sometimes being in the water can ... without trying solve the problem of the thing you're trying to write, in my experience. Where does surfing fit into your life these days?
William Finnegan: Well, it was a terrible winter and spring here, and so I'm sort of jonesing, and made big plans with a couple of friends. We're going to go to ... Because it's terrible in summer here, we're going to go to [inaudible 01:08:31] Pacific and they've been shutting down. We were going to go to Fiji and then Fiji closed, and Indonesia is getting tougher and tougher. So I'm going to ... I don't know, El Salvador, Oaxaca, apparently, are going to be the only possibilities this summer.
So right now there's not enough surfing in my life, but last fall, great hurricane season here on the east coast. It's this ghoulish thing. One shouldn't say that because these same hurricanes of course, pound the Caribbean and pound the Southeast United States, and are terrible things. But there are more and more of them with climate change, which means more and more waves for us up here. The ones we want, I should add, stay offshore. We don't want hurricanes that come to shore, there were a whole bunch of them. And if you'd asked me this nine months ago, I would have said, "My surfing life, it's on fire, because we're getting all these good ways." You've caught me at a low part of the trough.
Jamie Brisick: One thing I still remember is we met, I think, around 2011, I did a Q&A with you for the Surfer's Journal and in the Q&A, you said, "Oh, I'm writing a memoir about my life and surfing." Then we became friends from there and we had dinner every three or four months, and I would ask how the book's coming along, and more often than not, you would say, "It's going to be a disaster. It's just not working, I'm trying but I can't figure this thing out." Then the book came out and I remember listening to the radio and there was the announcement that you've gotten the Pulitzer Prize for memoir.
I remember I actually sent you a text right in that moment, but it was so interesting for me because as a fellow writer, seeing the sort of uncertainty of the creative process, and having the self doubt, and then also finding that sort of engine to keep pushing on, and to have the book become what it has, for me, it was absolutely fascinating.
What was the most surprising thing about the actual writing of the book? You had in your book, you had an idea of what barbarian days, how it would go, what it would look like, and then of course, as you're writing it, it becomes something else. What was the biggest surprise for you?
William Finnegan: I think actually, that interview we did, and I said, "Yeah, I'm working on this surf memoir," was the first time I'd ever told anybody I was doing it. So it was a real kick in the ass. Like, "Uh-oh, and they're going to put this in print and I've committed to it." so that was quite important to me to actually get the book done. I was working on it for about 20 years on and off, and that was toward the the stretch. But I think one of the reasons I was so miserable and sure that was never going to work in that period was because I was trying to, one of the later chapters was actually adapted from a magazine piece that I'd done about surfing in San Francisco.
Weirdly it was the hardest chapter. It was already written. It was a huge magazine piece, 40,000 words. I had plenty of material, if you just wanted to think in arithmetic terms. But I couldn't seem to transform ... That had been kind of a profile of a guy I was surfing with, and now I was trying to turn it into part of this book, which is a memoir, I'm the main character, thank you.
I just couldn't do it. I spent maybe two years trying to turn this magazine piece into a chapter in this book, and I was so discouraged and I actually don't feel like I ever got it right. If I look at it now, there's still sentences that have a magazine-y quality inside them. I just couldn't get it out. So that was the particular problem at that point.
Jamie Brisick: So interesting, John, I'll hand it over to you.
John Freeman: Thank you so much, Jamie. I want to jump back in here because there's one or two questions from the audience that had come in prior to this discussion. About that very chapter, Michelle and Grace wrote in saying, did any of famous or infamous buddies, Brian, Mark, etc., Have any feedback to you about any sections, and if so, what was flattering, what was critical? Grace doubled down on that saying, "Why did Mark hate the piece?" [crosstalk 01:13:03].
William Finnegan: [crosstalk 01:13:04] The book, Mark hated the piece, the New Yorker piece , and presumably hated the book too, I haven't heard. But I did actually take some of his objections on board. It was strange how it worked, because I had started writing for the New Yorker in the '80s when we lived in San Francisco, and sold them a little story, and somebody who worked in the editor's office said, "If you want to write something longer for us," which I did, "This is a good time to propose it, because you've got the editor's attention."
So I thought that meant I had to do it right now, like I had five minutes to come up with an idea and I didn't have any ideas. So I proposed a profile of this guy was surfing with at the time, Mark, I could see him as a kind of John McPhee hero of that period. This rugged outdoorsman who is also really smart, he was a cancer education specialist, a doctor. I surfed with him all the time, and he was very compelling figure. So I got the assignment and started reporting it, and very few people surfed in San Francisco in those days, it was kind of about this little community.
As soon as people noticed that I was writing about him, following him around with a notebook, they, in quite confrontational terms and quite pungent terms, started telling me how much they dislike him. It turned out he was really unpopular in this little ... I didn't know that when I proposed it. I could see why he was a very big personality, he used a lot of oxygen, and annoyed other people. It was a class thing, it was a working class neighborhood down there in San Francisco, by the beach, and kids grown up together and learned to surf, and he came from a fancy background in LA.
So I didn't know how to deal with this little ... I couldn't ignore it, so I tried to work at it as mildly as possible that he was kind of unpopular and it didn't work. Actually the piece took me seven ...
Popular and it didn't work. Actually the piece took me seven years to write mainly worrying about, "Oh, I don't want to make him mad." Everything I tried didn't work and he was mad as hell. He wrote me a big letter complaining about all kinds of stuff he didn't like in the piece, and I tried to actually make a bunch of changes in the book version of it, the points I thought were fair, but I don't know if he's ever read it. I assume I'm still on his shit list.
John Freeman: Well, the book is a series of portraits of places, of communities that you embed yourself into with deeper and deeper roots. Ocean Beach, the one you're mentioning right now in San Francisco, being one of them. Then Madeira, the other place that you mentioned in passing, just in your conversation with Jamie. The other thing about those two spots is that you ride bigger and bigger and more dangerous waves. A bigger wave is not necessarily a more dangerous one, as you explained in the book, but the waves that you're riding are more and more dangerous, it seems to me as a reader. I wonder if you can talk about that, because that seems to escalate as you get closer to middle age, and I wonder if you can speak about that relationship of mortality and danger.
William Finnegan: Yeah. Well, this fellow, Mark was a big wave surfer, that was his thing. He was always trying to push me into bigger and bigger waves, and telling me, "You need a gun, you need a bigger wave board," and I'd say, "I don't want to own a gun because then I'll be obliged to use it on a big days." That's most people's position when it comes to big waves. Ocean Beach is an intense place, a lot of big days in the winter, lots of scary experiences, in fact, when we left my, then girlfriend, now wife, when we left for New York, she said we have to get out of here. Every winter, it seems like you're going to drown and you come back at least once completely freaked out. Like clinical shock, can't sleep, you think you're going to drown.
I had a bunch of experiences like that and you don't drown over and over, and you realize that you can take a lot more than you thought you could. I think I got less scared of big waves as I got older, and probably less physically able to handle them, but more able to handle them mentally. Then I stumbled on to Madeira, which was an unknown place. This island in the middle of the Atlantic, this Portuguese island off Morocco, way out in the middle of the Atlantic, no continental shelf of course and just giant waves in the winter and really, really good. This friend and I, Peter Spacek and I, started going each winter and I finally got a gun because I trusted Peter as a buddy and he had a gun, and we'd surf bigger and bigger waves, and it was at the same point that I was realizing I don't surf as well as I used to.
These little pros from Portugal would show up and paddle circles around me, and I'd think, ah. I was, not approaching middle age, I was well into my forties, but I got calmer, I think, about big waves and a lot of it's just keeping your cool, not panicking. This is all relative. When I say big waves, I mean big for me. My limit was going up. There's big wave surfers, a whole different breed. Jamie knows a bunch of them, I know a few of them, they don't have a fight or flight instinct, something's wrong with them. They are relatively big and relatively hairy. Then of course, once we had our daughter, I think it was right then, I stopped going to Madeira. I hardly surfed really big waves since then, I quit water reporting at the same time, it's like that was the turning point.
John Freeman: There's a little section towards the end of the book that connects these few things, and I wonder if you could just briefly read it to bring us back to the book.
William Finnegan: Sure. I know what you mean. This is a paragraph... Light's not good here. It comes after... Well, I'm talking to this guy who I've met in Madeira, who's spent a lot of time there. A painter from Britain, and a surfer. He's saying,
"It will never get crowded here, it's just too hairy." He says, "This is deep ocean power, you know for yourself what it's like, these waves chase you down the point and you just want to get the hell out of there, head for the greenery, as they say, so it'll never get crowded." Here's what I had to say. He said, "People are scared of this place." For good reason, I thought, but did I surf to scare myself? No, I love the power, the juice, but only up to a point. Head for the greenery, that was conservative surfing, not slam bam shredding, and it was probably all I was good for at this age. I paddled out looking for a dopamine rush that was both familiar and rare. That required nerve and experience, but had nothing in common with terror.
Similarly when reporting, I went out looking for stories to satisfy my curiosity, to try to make sense of calamities, certainly not to get shot at. In fact, one of my worst days as a reporter had come in El Salvador on an election day during the civil war. Three journalists were killed that day, one wounded. I had been caught in a firefight in a village in Usulutan Province. In the next village over, a young Dutch cameraman named Cornel Legrow, was shot in the chest. The army attacked the car that was trying to get him to a hospital, pinning it down with aerial fire. Legrow died on the road, I was there when they pronounced him dead. His girlfriend on Annalise, who was his sound technician, did not take her eyes... Sorry. Did not take her eyes off him. She kissed his hands, his chest, his eyes, his mouth. She wiped the dust from his teeth with her handkerchief.
After I wrote and filed my story, I went surfing. El Salvador has a great wave called La Libertad, which was uncrowded in those days because of the war. I spent a week hiding out at La Libertad. Surfing was an antidote, however mild, for the horror. These things belonged on opposite sides of the ledger.
John Freeman: Thank you for reading that. Susan Litman, one of the guests writes in one of the responses to reading your book and listening to you speak about it, just how surfing creates a complete world which has its own language and structures. It's an enclosed space and she wonders if there's any other endeavors that you've ever participated in which shared this completeness.
William Finnegan: Yeah, I think a few. Most recently I've followed my daughter, who's 19 now, into the world of rock climbing, which I didn't know anything about and she took up on her own and is now a really good competitive climber. So, I followed her in learning how to do it in my sixties, insofar as you can learn at this age and I'm really into it. I just got back last night from a long week in the Rocky Mountains with some really good climbers and seeing bigger walls and new stuff. It is so much its own world. It's just as pointless as surfing, but also of course, a long history like surfing has especially in Europe and the Alps. People who've been doing this for a very long time in a dedicated, crazy way. It's really, really beautiful when it's done well, and it's quite moving to move through, but you have to learn the language and all the terms. I don't know how many of your members or listeners readers know anything about rock climbing, but it is really dense and just about as addictive and crazy as surfing, I think, and considerably more dangerous.
John Freeman: This is actually a good time to ask a follow-up that Susan also asked, because you just mentioned that your daughter's rock climbing. If you want to go on Amazon, there's a piece that Bill wrote about climbing with his daughter called, Climbing with Mollie. Susan asks, "Do women surfers experience the waves and the runs differently than men do, in your knowledge? If so, have you talked to any of them about how it's different?" Maybe now would be a good time to bring Jamie back if he wants to participate in this as a person who has covered a lot of different surfers as well. Bill, do you have any thoughts about that?
William Finnegan: Well, I haven't had any good female friends who surfed. I have one pretty good friend in Australia, but we didn't spend a lot of time together. We met in the South Pacific and we stayed in touch and even to this day, and we have surfing in common, but we didn't put in the time together, so I didn't write about her. I'm actually quite interested in... Because the pecking order; I think it's the phrase I used talking about [quera 01:24:29], in the line-up, the primitive competition for waves, it's just really intense. I've never surfed with our top women's surfers, some of whom I've interviewed like Carissa Moore and Stephanie Gilmore from Australia, both world champions who are absolutely beautiful surfers, and then almost any line-up would be at the top of the pecking order, like the number one... They're the best surfer, they'd get the best waves. I've actually never surfed with them. I've never seen them... Because it's a bunch of guys usually, and it's primitive.
It's just apelike, like who is going to get these waves, who puts their chest out in such a way, and who paddles fast enough and is good enough, but these women are better than 99% of all surfers. I'm sure maybe Jamie has seen women dominate a line-up? I'm still looking forward to someday surfing with Steph or Carissa, and seeing how guys deal with their raging superiority.
Jamie Brisick: Yeah. I live in Malibu and I have the privilege of surfing with Stephanie Gilmore, seven-time world champion, all the time. She is so good, in fact, I watched her ride a wave about two days ago and I was standing with a guy, and he said she's the best surfer in the world, male or female. I think what you said, Bill, is pretty right on. I think once you're on the wave; I don't think gender has much to do with it; but in the lineup, there is definitely... It can be very aggressive and it can be unwelcoming, I would imagine, for woman. But I think it's changed a lot and it's continuing to change and I think that the gap between the top men's surfer, top women's surfer, where 15 years ago, that would have been a big gap, that gap is closing so quickly.
William Finnegan: Yeah. Yeah. Different spots are more hospitable to women, like Mākaha. We were talking about Mākaha, I think, earlier, where we? I don't remember? But it's like you see lots of hot... I don't mean hot, good looking, I mean hot surfing. Woman in Mākaha for instance.
John Freeman: There's a question here for both of you, Jamie and Bill. Did either of you cross paths with Greg Noll, the surfing legend who died last month?
William Finnegan: Not I. Jamie?
Jamie Brisick: I met him briefly at a premiere of Riding Giants, the surf film about big waves and it was in New York city of all places. He was a giant personality, warm and friendly and funny like he is in the film.
William Finnegan: He was a big figure in my youth, just reading the magazines. He wore those stripe trunks and he took off in the biggest waves. There was a famous photo of him dropping in [inaudible 01:27:26] during a rainstorm taken by his wife. He was the only guy who stayed out, and it was the biggest wave I've ever seen when I was a kid. That of course, it was Greg Noll.
John Freeman: Here's another question for both of you, also of a very specific nature. How do you protect your feet for surfing?
William Finnegan: Jamie? How do you protect your feet?
Jamie Brisick: Well, that almost sounds like a trick question or some joke of some kind, that I'm not quite getting, but no. Truly, in the wintertime when it's cold or when you're surfing a very rocky break, there are booties which are incredibly helpful when you're running over the rocks all the time, because your feet do get slashed up. The booties are great, but again, it's this thing where you... And this is where the kind of humor or the analogy's might fly, or metaphor might fly. You don't want anything between you and your surfboard. The feeling of your feet on the wax or the deck grip is preferable to wearing this bootie, that makes you... You're not as... Your toes are pushing in all these different ways and so when you wear a bootie you don't get that same feel.
William Finnegan: Yeah. I don't know why I thought it was funny, but I try to go as late into the winter, or deep into the fall as I can without putting on booties, and then gloves, while this stuff it reduces... If you're getting old and crummy, you just get crummier fast when you put on booties and gloves.
John Freeman: There's a couple of passages in this book where William Finnegan describes going into water, which is in 30 degrees with the air that's 30 degrees. The question of how to protect one's extremities feels... There's also another passage where your hands are so numb after 30 minutes of surfing, you can't open the door to your van. That's different than your feet, but there is some very visceral descriptions of how quickly extremities get cold. Theresa Boylan, another listener has a question about what the both of you think about the inclusion of surfing at the Olympics this year, and just in general how you've seen surfing change over the years, which is one of the topics, Bill, of this book as well.
William Finnegan: I was anti-Olympics and in the long run up to this, but I've gotten of complaining about it. In fact, Steph Gilmore, she's going for Australia, right Jamie?
Jamie Brisick: Yes.
William Finnegan: Yeah. I asked her about it before I think she'd been chosen for the team and she was so thrilled. "Since I was a little girl, all I wanted to do was go to the Olympics," and I felt like such an old curmudgeon. She said, "You're probably a purist though, aren't you?" I felt just spatted. I'm happy that she gets to go and all that, but the whole... Surfing is never going to be a sport-sport. As an ex-pro, you got a different idea, I'm sure, but I think surfing is too anarchic, and they're never going to get their level playing field for competition and contests. I'm sorry to say, are usually pretty boring, especially for non-surfers, so I'm not excited about the general mainstreaming or commodification of surfing.
Jamie Brisick: I feel much the same actually. I was a competitive surfer and I came up through that and it gave me the opportunity to go and ride all these great breaks around the world, but at the same time when I moved out of pro-surfing, I came back to the same reason why I was into it in the beginning, which is, it was just a way to escape all that stuff. The idea of being really... We're competitive in the water with ourselves, but the idea it becoming a thing where you exit the water and there's a winner and a loser, that was definitely not why I started surfing. I think 98% of surfers in the world, that's the case. I'm interested and fascinated and I'm a big fan of professional surfing because in competition, the performance levels go really, really high, but my own personal surfing experience is all the competitiveness I feel on land, I want to leave behind when I get in the water.
John Freeman: I should have mentioned that one of Jamie's other books is, Have Board, Will Travel. The definitive history of surf, skate and snowboarding. I think we should start with one final question here as we're getting short on time, but it feels like it may be the best place to end. Jamie and Bill, this I guess, will also be for both of you and your memoir. Will Finnegan describes surfing as quote, "A moment of grace under pressure." The question of Kyle Hertz, wonders if this definition changes over time, or if it has changed for you after the success of the memoir? Or if you just simply return to it the same as you did before the book?
William Finnegan: I don't know. The book hasn't changed my relationship to surfing, I don't think. I was hoping when it did well that I might get a few more waves; people give me waves. "Oh yeah, you're the guy who wrote the book," maybe I got two waves. In fact, just after the book came out, I had this weird experience. I was at a place called Lido Beach on Long Island, my favorite wave out there. It was just a great day. It was like the day of that fall, and you knew it, and it was getting better and better. This uncanny sense of, this set that is coming, this is it. This is probably the best wave we're going to see all year here, and I was sprinting out there to get it. This is a few months after my book came out.
William Finnegan: There was a guy ahead of me, and I was trying to overtake him and grab the wave, and I couldn't catch, couldn't catch him, he was a strong paddler. I finally... Obviously he knew what he was doing, and I just finally gave up and he swerved and he was right in the peak and he turned... He got this long dark hair, and he turns and looks at me, and he knows he has it and I don't, and he double takes, and as he's paddling into this wave, he says, "If you're who I think you are..." in an Australian accent though, he said, "Good book," and he jumps up and just... I'm doing, "Wait, wait! Yes, it's me." That's the biggest thing that's happened to me in connection with my book. This wave, there was nothing behind it and you could see this guy's wake and just went forever and I never saw him again. It was the peak of the swell, the peak of the season, the wave of the year, or whatever. It was funny and super frustrating.
Jamie Brisick: I can't come close to that. I'm going to leave that one with Bill.
John Freeman: Well, this has been a really fun, but fast hour. This is an endless book, travels in so many places that deals with so many emotional states of love between a father and a daughter, a man and his wife, a man and the ocean, man with his friends, curiosity about the world. It is just the sweet honey of a summer book that you can crawl into and live in for a while. It's just been such a pleasure to talk to you about it, Bill and Jamie, it's been really nice to meet you and hear from you and have you part of the hour. David, I think it's your turn to come back now and walk us out, but thank you all for coming.
William Finnegan: Listen. Thanks John. Thanks a lot.
John Freeman: Pleasure.
Jamie Brisick: Thanks so much.
David L. Ulin: Thanks John. Thanks Bill, thanks Jamie. That was a wonderful conversation. Thanks to all of you for being here. I want to remind everyone that the interview has been recorded and will be available at californiabookclub.com. I also want to remind everybody to be here for next month's book, which is Dana Johnson's Elsewhere, California on August 19th. As a last reminder, there's the sale on the Alta membership for CBC members at altaonline.com/tote. Please participate in a two minute survey that will pop up as soon as we end the event. I want everybody to stay safe. See you all next month. Thanks again to Bill, Jamie and John for a fantastic conversation. Everybody have a good night, take care.•