Event Recap: Why William Finnegan Writes About the Vast World of Surfing

The author of Barbarian Days admits that surfing can be “self-indulgent to the max” and “also kind of ascetic,” but one pursues it “to the bitter end.”

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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,” William Finnegan said of his early surfing days at the 10th installment of Alta Journal’s California Book Club. “He sat there in his fisherman sweater smoking his pipe and said, go back and get three more [waves]. And I don’t remember, but it’s so gruesome, and I don’t ever give him that credit, but there’s that little thing, which is that surfing is hard to learn.”

With host John Freeman, book club members gathered virtually last night to discuss Finnegan’s Pulitzer Prize–winning memoir, Barbarian Days, which charts the fervent passion for and obsession with surfing that dates to Finnegan’s youth in California and, later, Hawaii, where his father worked as a producer for television. From his formative years of learning the social, physical, and emotional contracts of life in the water, beating against and riding along currents and waves, we follow Finnegan into his adulthood as he continues to surf, in San Francisco, Fiji, Australia, and even New York.

Freeman was eager to point out how impressive it was that Finnegan was able to document his travels so extensively because of the journals he had written and kept. “This book is remarkable for a lot of different reasons, one of which is that it describes a number of many sets that you’ve surfed throughout your life, dating back almost 50 years,” Freeman observed. “And you can do that because it’s based upon a prodigious amount of journals that you kept and letters…. Can you tell me a bit about learning to surf and learning to write?”

“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 10 years ago from a guy who was my best friend in high school and junior high,” Finnegan responded. “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, literally hundreds of pages, written when I was 13, 14, we’d moved to Hawaii…. I was just apparently writing him every night—all my adventures, and I think some of them were true. It’s hard to sort out.”

“Surfing was the sort of main event of my life in those days,” Finnegan continued. “Out in the water, I made friends. These three Hawaiian brothers.… It was just this passage into another world. And it was a lot of—you had to learn to respect people in the water, know who was who, and know what to do.”

Barbarian Days reveals the ways in which, for Finnegan, surfing is not simply a hobby but, rather, a kind of spiritual vocation that intersects all aspects of his life and relationships. In fact, surfing is precisely how he was able to form the complex friendships that he did. And Freeman noted this extraordinary fact of Finnegan’s narrative. “Your book is a history of these friendships that you developed. You mention friends you make in Hawaii. I think you just referred to Domenic, your friend in Los Angeles, who you were writing letters to. And you do a very hilarious job of seeing around the braggadocio in those letters. And then you make another friend, named Bryan, that you go traveling with,” Freeman said. “I wonder if you could talk a little bit about these friendships and how surfing conditioned them versus another sport. Do you think they’d be at all different if you had played football or baseball? What’s different about the friendship one develops when you’re on a board, sitting, waiting for a swell?”

“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,” Finnegan replied. “I mean, there are clubs, and we sort of aspired to join these clubs when we were kids, but we were just as well not invited. That is just to say, you’re really kind of—before you can drive, you’re hitchhiking around, you’re bumming up and down trying to find rides. This is in California. And it’s a lot more than 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 the sort of mania to find waves is considerable.”

“You go to extreme lengths, and you do it together, so these friendships really get tested,” Finnegan concluded. “You want that great wave, but it’s much greater if your friend sees you get that great wave. It’s a dense sort of homoerotic world you live in.”

Finnegan read a passage from Barbarian Days that detailed the time he rode a phenomenal, ferocious, harrowing wave called Kirra, and the lucidity of his language enchanted the audience, as evidenced by the electric and zealous responses in the Zoom chat. “You had to come into it fast but stay low on the face, be ready to duck when the thick lip threw horizontally, and then somehow stay over your board through an ungodly acceleration,” Finnegan recited.

Our special guest—writer and former pro surfer Jamie Brisick, who is the author of Becoming Westerly—joined the discussion and launched us into a consideration of how Finnegan was able to conjure the feeling of riding a wave with such vivacity. “The really striking thing for me when I read the book was just how vividly you could describe riding a wave, and that’s something that, for most surf journalists who write for surf magazines as I have, we don’t really do that much of,” Brisick commented. “We’re almost afraid of it. It’s almost as if that would feel like the Penthouse Forum sex scene or something like that. You don’t want to go near trying to write like that. But you do it so well and so vividly but never too much. And I think the thing you don’t want to do is write too much.… How did you manage to do that?”

“Well, I was writing for nonsurfers,” Finnegan noted. “That’s a big thing. And it’s true: I didn’t think about it, really, but once you pointed it out. In surf magazines—I mean, those surf magazines are drying up, we should mention, along with a lot of other magazines. But what we grew up on, it’s true: no one ever wrote about what riding a wave feels like because everyone already knew. And it just would’ve been somehow mutually embarrassing. And so it was kind of left, and the real subject was everything off the main thing. But you’re free when you 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 sort of subtleties of it. None of which are any news to surfers at all. But it is to other people.”

The event neared its end with Freeman weaving in a few audience questions. In particular, several members were interested to hear about female surfers. “Did women surfers experience the waves and the runs differently than men do, in your knowledge?” Freeman asked. “And if so, have you talked to any of them about how it’s different?”

“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 stayed in touch, 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,” Finnegan responded. “I’m actually quite interested in [this] because the ‘pecking order,’ which I think is the phrase I used talking about Kirra. In the lineup, the sort of primitive competition for waves is just really intense. There are top women surfers, some of whom I’ve interviewed, like Carissa Moore or Stephanie Gilmore, [who is] from Australia, both world champions who are absolutely beautiful surfers and in almost any lineup would be at the top of the pecking order—they’re the best surfer, they get the best waves. But I’ve actually never surfed with them…. But these women are better than 99 percent of all surfers.”•

Alta Journal’s California Book Club will return on August 19, in conversation with Dana Johnson. We’ll be talking about her debut novel, Elsewhere, California, about a middle-aged Black American woman who attempts to make sense of her youth in West Covina, a predominately white suburb near Los Angeles. For more information, click here.

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