Married To Surfing: Talking to William Finnegan About His Barbarian Days

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I picked up William Finnegan’s surf memoir Barbarian Days on a beach this summer, and felt—I was stoned, the sky was astounding, the waves were delirious—that I’d fallen into an almost violent communion. As with the excerpts previously published in The New Yorker, where Finnegan’s been a staff writer since 1987 (covering the civil war in Sudan, brutal gold mines in Chile, neo-Nazis in California, bootleg East Texas cocaine, etc.), the full book was saturated with a tactile, synesthetic precision—waves have “turquoise floodlights,” a “silver ceiling,” a “cushion of air”; they’re backlit, bumpy, crumbling—and a rough, compassionate, entirely discreet heart.

From childhood to fatherhood, through an extended period of rusted twenties aimlessness, surfing is Finnegan’s “stubborn, silent marriage,” the one that never got away. The subject comes with a wonderful amount of built-in contradiction. Surfers are shiftless drifters in overly close touch with their egos; waves arouse an intense hostility and also a helpless desire. To surf requires adrenaline and calm, aggression balanced with passivity, self-aggrandizement and abnegation at the same time. Barbarian Days blows out the space between opposites. Surfing is capacious enough to contain Finnegan’s decades of shifting circumstance, but precise enough to be a bright constant—a physical act that can be trusted only and always to line up the soul with the body, and overpower the heart and the mind. I talked to Finnegan on the phone this week.

I’ve never surfed or lived in a place where people surfed, but in a way, when you called surfing a “disabling enchantment,” that was all I needed to feel involved. Did surfing always feel that way to you, compulsive and essential?

Not initially. I spent a lot of time in the ocean when I was little, in Southern California. We used to sail and body surf and mess around on rafts, but surfing was for big guys—intimidating. I finally got around to paddling out on a proper surfboard when I was 10, on a great beginner’s break called San Onofre, and caught a great first ride—monkey see, monkey do.

I got my first surfboard for my 11th birthday, from my parents, and I learned to surf that first winter, alone, in Ventura, north of L.A. It was kind of cold and rocky—a spot called California Street—and it was a miserable pursuit a lot of the time. I was determined, but wouldn’t say I was really under any spell yet. My father always took credit for me learning to surf, in a little episode when I came in discouraged, and he said, “Go out and get three more.” I didn’t want to. I think I was crying. But he insisted from the warmth of his car, in his fisherman’s sweater: Even if you’re on your knees, go out and get three more.

I didn’t actually consider that any sort of turning point, but he did. Anyway I learned, and slowly, slowly got into it. I had a friend who surfed, and who came with my family to the beach, and so we undertook to learn California Street together. It can be a completely absorbing enterprise, because it’s not so much about learning to surf as it is learning a spot.

I have, taped to a file cabinet here on my desk, a picture of California Street on a great day, taken last year. Someone snapped a picture during a—let’s see, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight waves breaking at once, the whole length of the point. It’s just peeling—it looks amazing, it looks like Jeffrey’s Bay, one of the world’s great waves. California Street wasn’t always like that—in fact, I never saw it like that—but when the wind was right, when the swell was right, it was a great place to learn.

By the time we moved to Hawaii when I was 13, I was a hardcore surfer. I got into better waves, right near the coast, and I was able to surf a couple times a day, before and after school. I was around better surfers, Hawaiians with a better style. I was also, for a variety of reasons, drifting away from my family at that age. I had been raised Catholic and was just then allowed to leave the church.

Writing the book, I got back a huge cache of letters that I wrote to my best friend in California, and in them you can see this enchantment deepening. There’s some in the letters about school and girls, but mostly it’s about surfing. I went that much deeper into it at that point—surrendering to it, not feeling that I had a choice. I felt that there was land and there’s the ocean, and I was going to have this bipolar life, which ended up being true—this great split, although it ended up being along another division. Surfing is the North Pole of irresponsibility for me. It’s such a useless, monomaniacal, unproductive thing to do.

Did writing about it feel the same way? It took you a long time to get around to this; you describe surfing in an interview with LARB as “a subject so soft, an activity so completely useless, in the face of things that really demanded coverage—famines, wars.” I wondered if your aversion to writing about surfing also overlapped with an aversion to memoir—that making yourself your subject, in light of your other pursuits, also seemed useless, unproductive, soft.

Well, now that you mention it, it is a bit like that. Most of my work has been pretty engaged journalism, and my stuff about surfing doesn’t have a sort of social or political agenda at all. But that’s not to say that this is my preference with writing in general.

There was a period when I’d been living in South Africa, teaching high school, and the political urgency of the situation turned me into a bit of a fundamentalist. Not nearly so much as some of my friends, real anti-apartheid militants whose whole life was the struggle, as they called it—the liberation struggle—but I was strongly affected. I developed the puritanical view that either something helped materially or it didn’t. That gripped me for a year or so, although once I left South Africa, I became my usual morally flabby self.

But in general, I’m catholic in my reading—I read more fiction than anything else, and poetry. I don’t want things to have an overt moral point and would be bored with them if they did.

There’s a lot in the world of your book that seems bygone: one example is the low-key midcentury violence that you describe as permeating an ordinary, white, schoolkid world. Spanking, fights, real beatings, all unchallenged, with no consequences. As a kid, did you feel that surfing—the violence of it—was a counterpart to that?

I was conscious of it, but I wouldn’t have articulated it that way at all. It’s only on reflection that I would say, gee, this was a lot of ambient violence. It wasn’t drugs, gangs, shooting out on the street; it was the corporal punishment meted out at school, at home, boys fighting in public. There was more of that in school in Hawaii than what I was used to, but there had been plenty of it in Los Angeles, too. The big difference was that it was racialized in Hawaii—racial stereotypes, racist talk flying around all the time.

But the violence of surfing is just the ocean. People talk about violence between surfers, fights in the water—there are places in Hawaii where, supposedly, people fear the locals because they’re so tough and mean—but I’ve never seen a fight in the water in Hawaii in all the years I’ve been there. Surfing’s violence is the ocean doing what it does when swells reach the shore. It’s an ordinary explosion. It’s neither benign nor malign.

“Violence” itself sounds pejorative and interpersonal. But it’s also not the wrong word for surfing. It’s only that here, there’s no ethical aspect. And as surfers, it’s a fact that we place ourselves right near this particularly violent moment, which gets more exciting as it gets bigger and breaks harder. Surfers talk constantly about juice and power and violence, and it’s giddy talk, but also dead serious.

Looking over my old letters and journals, I could remember what an incredible break being in the water was every day in Hawaii, compared to school, which was so full of so much social pressure. It was mostly about fighting, which I only got out of because I joined this idiotically named white gang called the In Crowd. And still, there was always talk about the big fight that was coming that never came. There were some bad fights before that, like on that big kid, Lurch. What went on in the school was nasty; what went on in the water was mellow. I became a local after a few months. I knew how they surfed, I knew not to get in somebody’s way. I followed the rules, and had my absolute heroes around me, and was quite happy in the water.

I loved the descriptions of the way those local guys surfed. “Long moments of grace that felt etched deep in my being: what I wanted, somehow, more than anything else,” you wrote.

You know, Leslie Wong, who I just saw surf a few times—he only deigned to come a few times—just the other day, someone in California, maybe my friend Kevin McNaughton, remembered him when he saw the name in the book. “Man, the first time I saw Leslie Wong surf,” he said, “I thought I’d never seen anyone move a surfboard so fast and smoothly in my life.”

I thought, really? This was someone who would’ve seen all the top guys in California, and was still so excited to see this name, Leslie Wong—a guy he’d seen randomly, who wasn’t famous, one of those guys who never stepped up to the next level. But a guy who was magically good.

I remember your description of him. (“A silky style ... caught and pulled into the wave of the day, his back slightly arched, his arms relaxed, making the extremely difficult—no, come on, the ecstatic—look easy. If I ever grew up, I wanted to be Leslie Wong.”) There was such affectionate, plainspoken sensuality in the way you wrote about male friendships, bodies and grace. It’s not feminine, but it’s a different kind of masculine. It seemed related to the idiom of surfing, which is more worship or play than competition or war.

I knew that the book would largely be about male friendship—those deep friendships that have always surrounded surfing for me. And people have asked, why didn’t you have any women surf buddies? My answer is that I’ve never met a woman surfer who was into it the same way I am, or if I did, it was only in passing.

But, of course, there have always been incredibly good female surfers, and particularly now—I’ve never surfed with them, only seen them in videos, but you can see them surf better than 98 percent of men out there. They’re really hot—hot in the sense that they surf really well, I mean. I’ve thought it would be interesting to be out in the water with them, because out in a lineup, they’d be at the top of the pecking order. That would be very interesting. It’s such an alpha thing, to figure who’s going to be the top dog in any given session.

I was wondering if there really were no women out in the water with you, ever—I noticed their absence in the book.

The surfing social contract is very particular. It’s rewritten every day when you paddle out, this unending, simian dance of dominance and submission—with many aspects that are less brute, more delicate. And 99 percent of the time for me, it’s been just a completely male contract.

But the last time I went out at Cliffs, my local spot in Honolulu, about a year ago—my sister lives in Hawaii, so I get out there a lot now—it was about half women in the water. I thought that the atmosphere was distinctly different: lighter, more laughter than I remembered there ever being. And the women were good surfers, but the waves also weren’t worth fighting over. And I wondered how it sorts out when there’s competition—what it’s like when the waves get good.

Anyway, I always knew the book was going to be about male friendship. At first, the structure was very rigid: a few waves, a few guys. But then I had to write about my school, and then about my girlfriend. The chapter when I dropped out of college and went to Maui: I dragged my girlfriend, who wanted nothing to do with the ocean or Maui, and she was such a powerful person that she just knocked the plan for the book off its track.

I was so attracted to her in the book, via your character; I kind of read that chapter on the edge of my seat, wondering what was going to happen between you.

The force of her made the book get less exclusively masculine, and the book continued to do so over various drafts. But still, the primary relationships I set out to write about were these quite complicated friendships, which in some cases I pulled my punches about. I was using people’s real names. So, some of these relationships were more difficult than I’m describing—or got a lot more difficult later—but I let that be.

How did you reconstruct all of this? How much of a journal-keeper were you?

I used to keep voluminous journals. (Not so much after becoming a professional writer, of course; I started wanting to get paid for writing.) But even back then, I didn’t see myself as a surfer; it was just what I’d always done, what I didn’t really want to think about.

So my journals were full of the books I’m reading, the things I was trying to write, endless agonizing about girlfriends—if I was in some place interesting, a lot of interviewing people without really knowing what I was doing. But in letters that I recovered, written to friends who surf, there was tons of surf detail. And then, my girlfriend Caryn and my friend Bryan both let me look at their journals for certain periods. They kept fantastic journals, much better than mine. (They also gave them to me heavily redacted, big chunks marked up and blacked out, so I assume that what they redacted was complaints about me.)

I quote them a few times. I didn’t steal a lot from them. But what they did was kick into gear my own memory. And I did a fair amount of research, going back to contemporary newspapers, trying to see if what I remembered was true. I interviewed other people who were there. Memoir is a weird genre for a reporter. You go back and start investigating your own memory, and of course, everyone remembers things differently.

Another thing that seemed like it would be difficult to unearth with clarity was your explanation of these very fine, diffuse calculations in surfing. There’s one page spent on the split-second when you’re trying to gauge a wave, laying out these decisions that seem not just subconscious but pretty anti-verbal.

I know the page you’re talking about. I first wrote it, a version of it, for a big magazine piece that I did [“Playing Doc’s Games”]. I was keeping very detailed surf journals for that piece, and I realized that there was just so much stuff that goes on out in the water, and I drew from that, pages and pages.

That magazine piece is in the book, heavily adapted, which is to say, it seems to me that there’s hardly a sentence that’s the same. Some parts I took out and threw away; a couple of things, I moved to other parts of the book. I moved that passage up high, into chapter two, into a discussion of learning how to surf California Street. I was talking about how you get to understand a spot, the calculations you make. You read the swell, read the wave, draw on an archive of other spots and other days at this spot, all the different conditions playing into it. I was building up my understanding at California Street, so I thought I’d put that passage there.

But there’s a problem that makes it fit poorly—although, if you don’t spend a lot of time in waves, you wouldn’t have caught this, probably. California Street is what surfers call a cobblestone point break, running down along these gradually tapering rocks. Some of the best waves in the world are cobblestone point breaks, and it’s a particular kind of break—where you look and what you see is particular. So, some of the stuff in that close, close, close description of why you move, when you move, where—it’s taken from a beach break, a shiftier break with sandbars, or a certain kind of reef break. A very close reader who knows a lot about surfing might say, “Hmmm, you’re learning this at California Street?”

A few surfers have said that, actually. But then, I saw a review in an Australian surf magazine—and, I’m going to digress a little, but, for context, know that Australia publishes a lot of books about surfing; every big surf star writes a book, has multiple biographies, and everyone knows their names—a writer said, Finally, finally, finally, a book about what it’s like to be an ordinary surfer. Not about some high-flying pro winning world championships and burning out on coke. (Although the reviewer did wonder why there weren’t more “naughty bits” in my book, more sex and drugs! I didn’t know what to say to that.) Anyway, to the reviewer, it was just a book by an ordinary surfer with an ordinary passion who managed to be at the scene for key moments. There are so many guys in Australia who have done the same thing, who chase waves so hard—they’re not pros, they’re not good enough to make a living at it, but they sacrifice everything.

But then the reviewer singles out the same passage you did, and said, What surfer doesn’t recognize every syllable of that? And yet you’ve never seen it in writing before. It’s true that in surf magazines, you’ll never see a description of riding a wave. And that’s strange. Why don’t we allow writers to describe it? We just assume that everybody knows.

Or, that it’s just incredibly difficult to write about. An unconscious physical decision seems hard enough to articulate, but when currents and weather and light and time come into it, and there’s something close to emotion, and so much personal instinct, and a wave, something inherently unpredictable …

Yes, there’s that.

Surfing lends itself to the kind of relationships you can only develop around a severe obsession, but necessarily, if you ever get in trouble out there, you’re going to be alone. I’m interested in the fear of it, and the danger. The threat of a two-wave hold down.

I’ve never had one, and I live in fear of them.

So, there are different ways of getting underneath a wave. There’s duck diving, hanging onto your board and sneaking under, not getting pushed in too far as you’re paddling out. Then there’s bailing on your board—swimming down and hoping that your leash holds, waiting it out in the depths. Then there’s actually getting hit, getting sucked over, when the waves really get ahold of you no matter what you tried to do, and they pound you. Even if you’re able to hold your breath heroically in a swimming pool, the ability doesn’t help you at all. The pounding exhausts you immediately; 10 seconds feels like three minutes.

And that’s the danger, the two-wave hold down. When you’re getting pounded and you desperately need air, but then you hear the next one hit and know you’re not going to get up, that the spin cycle is coming, and you’re not going to get to the surface.

It’s never happened to me, although I’ve come close. I’ve only gotten one breath a few times, but one breath is a lot when you’re out of air.

Does the instinct to panic—the spike of adrenaline—change with experience?

Yes, the one advantage of being old is that I don’t panic as easily. That’s sort of crucial in bigger waves. And, we must distinguish between big waves and bigger waves. I do surf up around my personal limit—but there are guys for whom my limit is laughable.

There have been times when I run out of air too quickly, when I end up climbing my leash to the surface while it’s still too rough. I’m getting old, and that feels kind of horrible. But if you can stay calm, you have a better chance of getting back there. You won’t thrash needlessly.

Some guys take beatings that—well, there’s this video, recently, of Niccolo Porcella in Tahiti. He goes to the bottom, falls off, and gets sucked over the wave. Even to a non-surfer, it’s pretty horrifying. You see him inside the barrel, and god knows how someone survives something like that. You can try to curl into a ball, keep your arms from being torn out of your sockets, try to keep your head from hitting the reef, but you just don’t have any choice about it. He apparently survived without serious injury, but I have no idea how.

I want to ask you more about those things in your book that seem stuck in time. The actual discovery of things, the true aimlessness; the degree of difficulty and reward is different. I’m wondering if you had to guard against nostalgia while you were writing—and also if you hate when people are like, “I love surfing, I learned on vacation.”

Ha. Oh yeah, I surf—my wife and I picked it up in Costa Rica. You know, I don’t know if I’m nostalgic. I’m a big stick-in-the-mud. I don’t like things to change, ever—I do think, why do we have to change, things were better before—but that doesn’t mean I’m nostalgic. Having journals is a good antidote to nostalgia. I think about how lucky I was, finding these waves, and then I can see I was moaning in my journals the whole time. It’s a corrective.

And great things still happen; they might not be the same things, but they’re great things. The most important thing is, I don’t think I was happier back then. That’s what really gets people. But I don’t have that feeling. I never think, “Look how skinny and strong and happy I seemed to be.” Because: Look at my journals.

It does seem like surfing is automatically entangled with nostalgia, though. You talk about surfers having a perfection fetish. You’re always trying to extend and inhabit a moment of something being exactly right.

It’s true that when I was a kid, I was terribly nostalgic. You are raised on that in surfing. When I started surfing, the best spots in Southern California were already crowded: Malibu, Rincon, so on. You knew that a few years before you came along—or 20 years before, or just before—it was better, it was perfect. There were photos to rub that in your face.

I wrote lots of short stories back then, about just me and the Chumash Indians, me with my modern surfboard, that I arrived straight from heaven and they’re taking care of me. And that was nostalgia for 1947, really, when there were three guys out, and their boards didn’t have fins, they didn’t have wetsuits, but it was incredible—and you missed it, and you know it.

But I was in the dogfight. I was among the first to surf certain spots: Tavarua, Jeffreys Bay in South Africa, which is now tremendously crowded. I’m really grateful to have had those. Still, at the same time, everyone who has looked hard for waves has found some good empty waves. If you’re serious about getting good waves, if you’ll paddle out, you’ll get them, especially now, with Google Earth, which is a lot better than those damn navigational charts we used. We always tried to plot—look at the offshore canyon, the wind’s gonna come here. But we wouldn’t see the rocks we’d find when we actually got there. Or we’d find a really good wave, and then look at the charts afterwards and say, “Oh yeah, that’s why it’s good.”

The manner by which you got to Tavarua—those Indian fishermen who had never seen a surfboard, the little kid who sleeps in a nest of green leaves—all of them thinking you were carrying part of a plane!

And Tavarua was right there, there to be found, in Fiji, 10 miles from an international airport. The island was uninhabited, so it’s not like there were people traipsing by, but neither was it very remote. We were lucky to be among the first to surf it.

That incident also tells you something about the mass commodification of surfing, which is now used to sell anything. Cigarettes, really anything. It’s essentially impossible not to know what surfing is now, but not back then.

Do you ever think about the last time you’re going to surf?

I get really discouraged sometimes, when I surf badly. When I blow waves that I wouldn’t have blown in the past. I get really down and say, “Ugh I’m useless, I should get a longboard.” Longboards are a lot easier. And that’s a drag. Becoming a kook again, getting to be a worse surfer, is really a drag. You still read waves just as well—you know what needs to be done—but you’re not as quick, not as strong. You blow a wave. And that’s just going to get worse, and you know it.

But I don’t think about it too much. It depends where you surf and how you surf, but some people surf into quite old age. You need the right equipment, a spot amenable to brittle old bones, and increasingly simple surfing. I haven’t gotten that around here, really, in New York—I surf mainly quick beach breaks around here. Still I was just playing tennis before you called—there’s guys on the court that were in their eighties, having a ball.

Sorry that question was like, “Do you ever think about death?”

That’s just fine. You know, since this interview is for Deadspin, I was expecting you to ask me if surfing was a sport or not.

Oh, right, yeah, maybe I should have … thought about that … in some way ...

I’ve never heard a non-corny explanation of what surfing is: a religion, an obsession, any of the things people say. But people who seriously surf are people who have let surfing mess up their lives—that’s undeniable. There’s a part in that San Francisco chapter—there’s a guy I quote, a surf evangelist, a sort of strong, silent, big-wave hero type called Peewee, who says that surfing is a really dangerous thing. That the biggest locals are the biggest derelicts. And that says it perfectly. If you get really into it, you’re liable to end up on the street.

Because what is it you’re doing, anyway? Very few surfers compete, or make any money, or get any pats on the back. There’s more of it these days—surf teams, and it’s a lot more organized in Australia—but all that is meaningless for a lot of surfers. It’s a sideshow. Some of the very best don’t compete. What they’re after is totally different.

There’s an amazing moment in an interview with Kelly Slater—you know who Kelly Slater is?

I love Saved By the Bell. No, I do know.

So he came out of the water, a few years ago, after winning this contest called the Pipe Master. He’s won 11 world championships, something like that. And he’s coming out of a 10-12 foot pipeline, and someone’s asking him, “How does that feel, you’ve won another championship, another $100K,” and he’s trying to give the interview, but he keeps looking over his shoulder, at the set coming through. He was alone out there with another guy before, but now the water’s full of people. And he’s a pro, but he can’t stop looking. He keeps saying “FUCK! AHHH! NO, THE NEXT ONE’S EVEN BETTER!”

And the reporter is like, “Kelly, yoohoo,” and he’s just staring, and he shakes his head, and the guy says, “Kelly, you just won $100K,” and he says, “I’d give it back to have another half-hour with two guys out there.” He’s dead serious; any surfer would say he means it. And so, it’s not the same as soccer or basketball. People would not say, “I’ll give you all the money I have to get back on that court.” But with surfing, people will. They’ll pay anything to get to that place. That’s the difference.

Images courtesy of Penguin and the author. BARBARIAN DAYS: A SURFING LIFE is out now via Penguin. Jia Tolentino is the features editor at Jezebel and doesn’t know shit about sports.