A Surf Odyssey

By Cynthia Wessendorf

Wiry, cracking jokes and captivating his audience with a freewheeling conversational style that befits decades spent hunting stories in troubled spots across the globe, William Finnegan seems game for anything. Today he’s itching to ride the North Shore swells, unfazed by danger after 60-plus years. But a hectic schedule has forced him to make do with the waters off Diamond Head, the site of some of his earliest surfing exploits.

Staff writer for The NewYorker, noted political journalist, and author of the recent bestseller, “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life,” Finnegan was back at Punahou for a second writer-in-residence stint, a two-week whirlwind in March of teacher workshops, class presentations and a public talk with world-champion surfer Carissa Moore ’10.

In his off hours, a podcast crew stalked his movements, even his twilight ride.The crew was trying to capture opening scenes of “Barbarian Days,” Finnegan’s haunting memoir of chasing an obsession – along the coastal breaks of his native California; on the waves off Honolulu, where his father’s film work periodically brought the family; and trekking across Europe, the Pacific, Australia, Asia and Africa.

A departure from his trademark stories on Somalia’s civil war, Mexico’s drug violence and South Africa under apartheid, in “Barbarian Days,” he turns the lens on himself. It chronicles his life as a relentless traveler and survivor of a reckless youth. As the book explains, surfing’s rigor and hypnotic beauty drives his pursuit of the next big wave and unmoors him from the tidy, responsible world he left behind at 17.

The journey begins in 1966 O‘ahu, where a 13-year-old Finnegan, fresh from California, enrolled in a public school in Kaimuki and honed his skills among the local surfers at Cliffs. His battles to find his bearings in an unfamiliar world seem to shape the course of the decades that follow.

Q: What made you decide to tackle the memoir format?

My best friend in Los Angeles when I was kid came to me with an old box of letters. I wrote an amazing number from Hawai‘i when I was 13 and 14. Reading through them, I saw the backbone of what became the first chapter of the book. Yet I had trouble getting down to it because my work for the magazine and my other books tend to be about big, serious topics like war, poverty, organized crime and justice. Surfing felt lightweight, like self-indulgence. But I’d get to it, and even enjoy writing it, which is unusual.

Q: Was revealing your own life story difficult?

Memoir is a very weird genre for a reporter because you’re investigating your own life. And more to the point, this is private life, off the record. You are giving yourself license to depict friends, loved ones and all these unguarded, shared moments. That’s a big arrogation.

Q: You were itinerate for a decade. What made you stop?

From the time I was a teenager, I was a compulsive traveler for about 15 years. I used to hitchhike coast to coast in three days. Just the idea of moving soothed the adolescent anxiety in me and felt like a crash course in everything. I realized when I was about 30 and trying to settle down, that meant to stop having jobs. I’d had many, many day jobs. I said, “That’s it. No more jobs. You’re going to now make a living by writing.” I’ve stuck to it. At The New Yorker, I have a contract, but it’s not a “job” job. Nobody tells me what to do.

Q: How did those years traveling and surfing shape you as a writer?

The years I spent moving and living in different cultures and countries actually served me very well when I started doing a lot of international reporting. I’m quite used to coping with new places and quickly learning the rudiments of a new language, quickly learning local geography – how to get around, how to get on with people, how to get people talking to me. At another level, with surfing, there’s more to surfing than meets the eye. You have to understand a patch of ocean, what the waves are doing, in a way that requires a lot of attention, especially waves of some consequence. A lot of long-form journalism is similar in broad outline. You’ve got to understand what makes this place work, what’s the story I can tell, and – not to be corny – but what’s the wave I can ride and how do I ride it.

Q: What career advice would you give to kids who feel called to writing?

I would say do it, don’t just talk about it, and see where it takes you and if you can stick with it. Because a lot of making your career in writing is suffering through the apprenticeship and the drought of recognition and the no money and wondering if it’s ever going to end. Wondering if you have the talent and grit and resilience. There’s a lot of rejection that comes with this field.

Q: At what point did you decide to write nonfiction instead of novels?

That happened during a watershed year teaching in South Africa, which is one of the jobs I got to finance my life as a surf bum. I walked into a job in a black high school outside Cape Town during the bad old years of apartheid. It was a situation of extreme racial subjugation and oppression. By the end of that year, I just lost interest in fiction. I was finishing my third novel, but my mind was on to the next thing, which was politics. That’s what I wanted to write about. I wanted to do journalism.

Q: Are students able to relate to your reporting from far-flung corners of the world?

College students in the Midwest, for example, have often had a much narrower experience culturally than kids from Hawai‘i, who have an inherent grasp of what it means to come from a different country or different culture. There are immigrants from many countries in Asia and elsewhere right here. In that sense, Hawai‘i kids are sophisticated. You’re isolated on an island in the middle of the Pacific, but you don’t have any illusions about having just one culture.

Q: The middle school experience you describe in your memoir was rough. What if your parents had sent you to Punahou instead?

If I had graduated from Punahou, well, maybe I’d be president of the United States!

Q: Didn’t you profile Barack Obama?

It was before he was famous. He was running for the U.S. Senate and obviously a very interesting guy. I got an out-of-print copy of “Dreams from My Father” and was astounded by how good it was. It was such a sophisticated, really moving and well-wrought book. And I thought, “I’ve got to meet this guy.” So I went to Chicago and here’s this quiet and persuasive person with incredible charisma. I had people say to me, “You are talking to the next president.”

Cynthia Wessendorf is a freelance writer, editor and current Punahou parent.

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