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Our bookseller Sara got the chance to ask one of her favorite authors five questions. Of course she couldn't stop at just five...
William Finnegan is the author of Barbarian Days, one of our Best Books of 2015.
Barbarian DaysWilliam Finnegan
Cold New WorldWilliam Finnegan
A Complicated WarWilliam Finnegan

1. Over the course of the book, you describe riding countless waves, yet never get redundant. When you started the project, were you worried about redundancy? Did the variance just flow or was that an extra challenge?

I didn’t include any descriptions of rides for their own sake. Each one is in there to advance the story, or to illustrate something that I find striking or important. So I didn’t really worry about repeating myself, no. Some readers unfamiliar with the ocean have said that they never realized before how distinct every wave is. To me, though, they’re each vivid characters, and I just tried to convey some of that.
William Finnegan quote

2. I feel like I should know the answer to this question, but do you have a favorite wave? Tavarua?

It’s actually changed with the years. That’s partly because I’ve changed, but also because surf breaks change—either physically, as a result of coastal development or some natural cataclysm, like an earthquake or a coast-altering storm, or socially, which usually means that the word gets out about a great wave and it then gets prohibitively crowded, to the point that it’s more like cage-fighting than surfing. I’ve had serious romances with different waves at different times—Honolua Bay, Maui, when I was 18, 19; Jardim do Mar, Madeira, in my 40’s. Tavarua, in Fiji, was the love of my life when the island was uninhabited and we camped on the beach and surfed it in splendid isolation. Later, after a resort was built there, it was still a world-class wave but the feelings weren’t the same.
William Finnegan quote

3. Despite the inherent solitary nature of surfing, you clearly appreciate the bonds formed with fellow surfers. Does journalism foster the same sense of community?

Between journalists, as between surfers? There are similarities. You share ideas, sometimes share risks, and you often compete. But the intense friendships that, in my experience, form around chasing waves have a quality that I don’t encounter elsewhere in life. You understand each other’s craziness. Surfing’s classically addictive, embarrassingly useless, and yet so rewarding.
William Finnegan quote

4. You are fairly apologetic about the idea of surfing. It’s not serious. You had to “come out” as a surfer. Why?

It’s partly because I usually write about heavy topics like poverty, race, war, immigration, and organized crime, and the policy debates that revolve around such things. That’s the responsible, serious side of my somewhat bipolar life—I’m trying to be a good citizen, in the ancient sense of the word. Then there’s surfing, which for me is part of a lifelong struggle against responsibility. It’s totally unproductive, basically anti-social. It involves the worship of strange nature gods. Professionally, I thought that outing myself as a surfer might cause me to be taken less seriously in policy debates. That didn’t happen. Nobody cared. So I’m probably getting less apologetic, less defensive. Still, I find it fairly indefensible as an obsession.
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5. There seems to be pretty wide agreement in the surfing and literary world that there isn’t any better writing on surfing out there than Playing Doc’s Games and Barbarian Days, and from what I know I’d agree. But, is there other writing or coverage on surfing that gets it right? That inspires or entertains you?

My favorite books about surfing tend to be technical. When I was a kid, I practically memorized Surfing Guide to Southern California, by Bill Cleary and David H. Stern. It’s dense, dry, long, really funny, extremely detailed, well-written. I love Matt Warshaw’s doorstopper tomes, The Encyclopedia of Surfing and The History of Surfing.  

6. You’ve reported on conflict and social justice from all over the world for The New Yorker and in your previous books. What new subjects are you drawn to?

Mexico—politics, society, the dominance of organized crime. Immigration — which brings out the best and the worst, I think, in Americans.
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7. Do you enjoy the process of writing? Your touch feels so precise and deliberate. Barbarian Days is a gorgeous blend of flash and restraint that you make look easy, but I kept thinking about how much work goes into this kind of result.

Some parts of Barbarian Days came relatively easily. Most of it didn’t. I spent many years on the book—my publisher was spectacularly patient—and I really appreciated the luxury of the time to get the writing as close to what I wanted it to be as I could. Usually, even with long pieces for The New Yorker, I feel like I have to keep churning out work, which means not making the perfect the enemy of the good. I don’t mean that Barbarian Days is perfect—far from it!—but I did work long and hard to try to make it look easy. Unfortunately, I’m like most writers. I don’t enjoy writing but I like having written.
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Wednesday, December 16, 2015 - 11:30am