I first encountered William Finnegan in “Playing Doc’s Games,” a two-part, 39,000-word New Yorker story, back in 1992. As a lifelong pursuer of waves and a religious consumer of surf magazines, I was blown away by his ability to capture those seemingly ineffable, animal moments that happen in the water. What it feels like to cop a thick, icy, steel-gray lip on the head; how we look at the reactions of the surfer sitting farther out than us to determine if there are more waves in the set; that nervous, nagging sensation that dogs us when the surf’s up but we have other commitments. Surf writing is typically self-congratulatory, a kind of sell, but Finnegan was critical and wrote viscerally, taking the reader with him into the rough surf in ways other writers had rarely succeeded in doing. He also wrote about the double edge, how the surfing life can maroon you in adulthood. I was twenty-six in 1992. On overhead days, Malibu was abuzz with fun, friends, comfort. But on flat days I felt forlorn, lost. Finnegan’s words resonated—they still do.
We first met in 2010 at a literary event in Lower Manhattan. Tall and handsome in a JFK sort of way, Finnegan was warm, simpatico, like an old friend. Conversation bounced from the Rwandan genocide to the Mexican drug wars to the spiraling tubes of Kirra to his beloved 7’2” Owl Chapman semigun, which he’d recently snapped in big Hawaiian surf. He talked about Kelly Slater and President Obama with equal fervor. He told me that when he first moved to New York he tried to keep his lifelong surfing habit under wraps: “I was afraid of being outed as Jeff Spicoli in disguise.”
Not likely. Finnegan has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1987. His pieces for the magazine have won many awards. He is the author of four books: Crossing the Line: A Year in the Land of Apartheid, Dateline Soweto: Travels with Black South African Reporters, A Complicated War: The Harrowing of Mozambique, and Cold New World: Growing Up in a Harder Country. He has dined with the Clintons at the White House (Hillary’s invitation) and spoken eloquently about domestic security on Charlie Rose. He has lectured at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia.
But his vibe is more intrepid globe-trotter than tweedy academic. He’s backpacked through Asia, Africa, and Europe, taught at a black high school in apartheid-era Cape Town, and camped for weeks on an uninhabited Fijian island to feed his surf jones. He is fifty-nine, but mixes easily with beer-soaked punks more than half his age.
He also puts in a remarkable amount of surf time. Rarely does a head-high or above swell hit the Northeast without Finnegan getting a piece of it. And this goes for those snowy, icicles-dripping-from-the-chin winter days as well. We’ve yet to surf together, but mutual friends report a smooth style and a penchant for big, meaty lefts.
The following conversation took place over forgettable lunch specials at a Japanese fusion restaurant on the Upper West Side. Finnegan wore a blue polo shirt, faded, loose-fitting jeans, and beat-up boat shoes. Solid in and out of the water, he spoke with great precision, his hands carving S-turns and cutbacks as he made his points.
SLAKE: How did you go from being a surfer to a renowned journalist?
WILLIAM FINNEGAN: Well, I still surf and I don’t claim anything like wide renown, but it’s true I took an unlikely route from surf-obsessed youth to the work I do now, and it’s probably true that chasing waves all over as a kid actually helped open up my world.
I was raised in L.A., but I left home young and by my late twenties had lived in Hawaii, Australia, Africa, Asia, Europe. I’d bummed around the South Pacific. Had a lot of odd jobs—railroading, bartending, schoolteaching. I was supporting two habits in those days, surfing and writing. I had always loved to tell stories, and I was writing fiction—three unpublished novels. I also did some freelance travel writing. But I first got seriously interested in journalism, political journalism, in Cape Town, where I was teaching in a black high school. This was in the bad old days of apartheid, 1980, and our students went out on a three-month protest strike that eventually drew a very violent response from the state. It was a totally gripping thing to be in the middle of, and I came away changed. I lost interest in writing fiction. I wanted a more direct line to the issues that grabbed me, which for me meant writing long-form nonfiction instead—mostly about, as it turned out, different kinds of conflict and injustice.
I came back to the U.S. and started freelancing. I was still quite provincial in many ways—inexperienced as a journalist, naive about politics—but having traveled a lot helped give me the confidence to take on far-flung assignments, both in the U.S. and overseas. Once I started writing for national magazines, it became clear that I had to start thinking much harder about how power actually works—to disaggregate power, so to speak—and start making the kinds of fine distinctions between institutions and interests that, as a hippie surfer kid from California, I wasn’t really raised to make.
So I was learning as I went, and it was helpful that I didn’t really understand the depths of my own ignorance until it was too late—until I was already, for better or worse, a working journalist, cranking out long, reported pieces, short opinion pieces, books. When I moved to New York and started writing for The New Yorker, my father, who was in the film business, told me, “You’re lucky. You’re from L.A. You don’t know your place.” He meant that I was unfamiliar with the elite institutions of the East, and all the culling that goes on in schools and colleges to sort out who gets to do what, and he was right, I knew very little about all that, which was an advantage, mostly. I just got on with the work. But I didn’t quit surfing. In fact, I’m probably keener than ever these days.
Tell me more about what triggered your switch from fiction to nonfiction during your time in South Africa.
I was finishing a novel while teaching school, and I just felt this increasing dissonance between the highly literary imperatives of the book, which had its politics but was largely built on language and was deeply romantic about the world it took place in—that world was the railroad on the California Central Coast, where I had worked as a brakeman—and the imperatives of the antiapartheid struggle, where the values, the textures, were so utterly different and so compelling. Eventually, I found myself sucked out of my fictional universe, emotionally, and into a more immediate, more demanding set of preoccupations. But there’s a purism, a utilitarianism, to revolutionary movements that can be quite antiliterary.
I wanted to write about South Africa, and I was furiously filling journals with observations and character sketches, but I eventually decided that I couldn’t actually write anything useful—that the broadest audience I might be able to command would be a bunch of bourgeois Americans who might be entertained, at best, by stories about oppression in Africa, but who would never help, materially, the struggle for nonracial democracy. So why should I bother with them? I got very confused about this for a while. I wanted to write nonfiction, but I ruled out the only real subject I had at the time, South Africa, because I applied such a stringent, historical-materialist standard to the idea of “amusing” Americans with what was going on there.
I finally relaxed a bit after I came back to the U.S. A friend asked me to tell her about South Africa, and I didn’t really want to, but she was giving me a ride to Seattle at the time, so I felt obliged, and I started talking, and eight hours later, when we got to Seattle, I was still talking, faster and faster. That’s when I realized that, for better or worse, whether it was useful to the cause or not, this was the story I had to tell. So I wrote Crossing the Line.
How did your story choices evolve after Crossing the Line?
I used to do a lot of war reporting. South Africa was a kind of low-grade civil war in the eighties and early nineties, when I wrote Crossing the Line and Dateline Soweto. I did a book about the civil war in Mozambique, which was a full-blown, country-destroying inferno. I wrote about Central America in the eighties, the Balkans in the nineties, Somalia, the civil war in Sudan.
But I was also doing a series of pieces at the same time about downward mobility in different parts of the U.S., which became a book, Cold New World. So maybe half my stuff in those years was international, half American. I also did some lighter pieces—about the Olympics, punk rock, even a long piece about surfing—along with many editorials and short pieces for [The New Yorker’s] Talk of the Town. So I don’t know what the unifying themes in my choice of subjects would be, beyond my own curiosity and, I guess, an enduring resentment of bullies.
That resentment has led me to write a lot of critical stuff about U.S. foreign policy. I quit war reporting after my daughter was born, in 2001. I still do some semi-dicey foreign pieces—a couple of stories about organized crime in Mexico last year, a piece about human trafficking in Eastern Europe and the Middle East a couple of years ago. I’m interested in the weakening of the state, both in extreme cases like Somalia and Mexico, and in the rich democracies, where the balance of power has tipped quite far, in my opinion, toward private corporations and the very wealthy.
I’ve written about the privatization of public services in various contexts—water in Bolivia, the Underground in London. I’m working on a piece about private prison corporations in the U.S. now. I find the business model of private prisons outrageous, particularly where it influences, through lobbyists and so-called campaign contributions, criminal justice policy at the state and federal levels—leading to harsher laws, longer sentences, more draconian immigration enforcement. Outrage might be my main inspiration over the long haul.
Mar 30, 05:03 PMPurchase or Subscribe to Slake: Los Angeles
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