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A Conversation with Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author William Finnegan

Anderson interviewing Finnegan. Photo credit to Ben Cater.

Last week, the 28th annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea was held at Point Loma Nazarene University. The week-long event invites writers of diverse backgrounds to be interviewed in front of writers, readers and members of the San Diego community.

This year, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life,” William Finnegan, was one of four writers invited to speak at the event. “Barbarian Days” follows Finnegan’s surfing life and how it has led him to where he is today. PLNU Professor of history and literature Ben Cater invited Finnegan to speak and interviewed him on Feb. 22 at Crill Performance Hall.  

PLNU’s proximity to the Pacific Ocean has contributed to the university’s large population of surfers, which drew in both surfers and writers for Finnegan’s interview to discuss his book, surfing and his career. 

Before his conversation at the Writer’s Symposium, The Point interviewed Finnegan.

The Point: I am sure you have spoken at a lot of literary events before, but what does it mean to be at a university where surfing is an integral part of its culture? 

William Finnegan: Dr. Cater invited me and we started talking and I slowly gathered that you guys [have a strong surfing culture] when he sent me a photo of good waves from his office window. It was just wow. He said, “Do you want to see if you want to go surfing while you are here?” I said, “I gotta do this.” 

TP: You ended “Barbarian Days” with a Bible verse; since you’re here speaking at a Nazarene university, what was the purpose of that? 

William Finnegan: There is a big arc through the book. One of the reasons it is called “Barbarian Days’” is because of a famous quote by a Puritan missionary from New England who was one of the early American Missionaries in Hawaii, a guy named Hiram Bingham. He was kind of in charge of the group.

He and his fellow missionaries identified surfing as sort of the prime example of native lassitude and sensuality. They are not doing what those guys considered to be the Christian thing to do. He made a whole thing about how barbaric this surfing thing was and they went some lengths to stamp out surfing.

Then I go into some of the histories of what surfing has meant to Hawaii over time, which has included some native resistance to colonialism and capitalism. The way the book kind of comes full circle is I am in Fiji, this place that has meant a lot to me over the years, but now it is a resort.

This guy that works for the resort comes out surfing with me at this great spot, Cloudbreak, just the two of us. I got hurt and he wanted me to leave. But it seemed fine to me and the waves were so good so I didn’t want to go in. Then he turns to me and says “Bill, do you know that God loves you?” He starts preaching to me and I did not know this part of him.

We came to this agreement that we will stay close together which with really big waves and a really long reef was impossible, but we just kept surfing together. It was an amazing moment in my life; surfing that place and in those conditions.

The reversal of roles was that the local guy he’s super Christian and he wants me to follow the Bible and it was kind of fitting with the beginning of the book and the beginning of surfing in Hawaii, where it was the white Christians trying to get the locals to follow the bible. And the stuff he was saying was just so beautiful. 

TP: Your career obviously did not center around surfing until “Barbarian Days,” but it was kind of a crucial part of your life. Did you realize that later as you started to write the book? 

William Finnegan: I always surfed but I always wanted to be a writer and I also wrote about politics. At different points, I thought “I am not really surfing anymore.” I had moved to New York, then I discovered there were good waves in New York and did yearly winter trips to Madeira and Fiji and never really did let it go.

At some point, I finally wrote something about surfing: a profile of a guy I used to surf with in San Francisco. Then my publisher wanted a book and I slowly warmed to the idea; it took me like 20 years to write. It made me think that there is a sort of autobiography I could write that is not about my work and primarily about surfing.

Yet for me, it is about the struggle to have a life and surf. Surfing is one pull and work and citizenship is the other pull. My whole life has been this kind of irresponsibility and responsibility. That, to me, is what the book is about. I wanted to justify it in a way. You know I had spent like 50 years chasing waves, can I justify it? 

Learn more about the Writers Symposium at the Sea at https://www.pointloma.edu/opportunities/writers-symposium-sea.

Read the rest of the interview on lomabeat.com

TP: Can we talk about Tavarua? I mean what was it like stumbling upon it in your travels and how did it feel to see it hit the mainstream?  

William Finnegan: Well, we were not the first people to surf it. There were two people who had surfed it before us off yachts. We had overheard a marine radio transmission from that yacht to their friends that there’s this 300-yard perfect left. So we thought “Where is the 300-yard perfect left?”

I mean we were in Fiji but we did not know where it was. So we knew who the other people were so we went to them and had them around the throat asking “Where’s this wave?” He completely threw us off.

He sent us to the completely wrong island, as you would. Then through a long series of coincidences, I met this young woman who had been on the boat that discovered the wave. She did not surf and she was not excited about it at all. We started talking and she was complaining about the two boys who just wanted to surf this wave and they had been out there forever.

We thought these must be the people we were looking for. So she took me back to her boyfriend, who wasn’t happy to meet me. Eventually, we choked out of him a map to Tavarua. Which was not in an obvious place.

We arranged for some fisherman to drop us off out there and we would camp and we endured a lot of flat spells. It’s relatively fickle. We eventually got some really really really good days and it all seemed worth it. It was really quite emotional when it got good.

So that was then, we had a sort of blood oath together to keep this secret, don’t tell anyone ever where this is, and of course, somebody did. The next thing I heard, I was back in the U.S., always kind of planning to go back there, and all of a sudden it was on the cover of a magazine.

Then these guys built a resort there and it was the first surf resort I ever heard of. I did not have the money to go back. I sort of boycotted it, I was pissed off that they had done this. Then years passed and eventually I had enough money to go back and I swallowed my principles. I started going back in 2002 and went back every year and surfed it as a resort guest. A lot less romantic than being an explorer. 

Written By: Steve Anderson