William Finnegan To Give Talk On New Memoir

By Ellie Reinhardt

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William Finnegan has spent his career writing and reporting for The New Yorker, but his auto-biography, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, exposes a life dedicated to surfing and the search for the perfect wave. This Tuesday, Feb. 23, Finnegan will present his new memoir to the College community and discuss how surfing, writing, reporting and growing up have shaped his life.

Finnegan has been a contributor at The New Yorker since 1984 and a staff writer since 1987. He has been recognized for his work with a number of literary awards, including the John Bartlow Martin Award for Public Interest Magazine Journalism, the Edward M. Brecher Award for Achievement in the Field of Media for his article “Deep East Texas” in 1994, the Sidney Hillman Prize for Magazine Reporting for “The Unwanted” and the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism for “Leasing the Rain.” He has also been a National Magazine Award finalist twice and has won two Overseas Press Club awards. His novel, Crossing the Line was selected by the New York Times Book Review as one of the ten best nonfiction books of the year.

Finnegan has spent time around the world covering regional wars, famines, coups and organized crime in an effort to uncover the stories that hard news cannot. He started his career with an M.F.A in fiction from the University of Montana and as a creative writer and novelist. However, while working as a teacher in Cape Town in 1980, towards the end of South Africa’s apartheid era, he decided to dedicate his career to journalism. In an interview with the Campus, he said of the experience, “I found myself suddenly losing interest in the sort of fiction I was writing. Only politics seemed important.”

From there, Finnegan began to travel throughout Africa, Central America, South America, Europe, the Balkans, Australia and the United States in search of the people and communities entrenched in the conflicts of some of the most war-torn and crime-ridden areas. “I’m interested in power, conflict, injustice, how people cope,” he said. “I look for people who are living the news, and people whom I can spend a lot of time with, and then, sometimes, when it goes well, I end up with a story that revises, or at least refines, colors in, the conventional understanding of what’s going on in, say, Somalia, or a cartel-dominated part of Mexico.”

Although his career was dominated by politics, Finnegan’s life, and his memoir, reveal a passion and obsession for the “ocean-centered world” of surfing. Although the two did not often go hand-in-hand, “there is a rough similarity between trying to figure out a new wave and trying to figure out a story in an unfamiliar place. You have to get your bearings, learn a lot of highly local information, and start applying it,” he said.

Finnegan, raised in California and Hawaii, spent his childhood learning to surf and devoting his time to the community and culture of surfing. “It’s a world that non-surfers know little about, and it has nothing to do with the surf imagery strewn around pop culture and advertising,” he said.

With his memoir, Finnegan has set off to bring a literary voice to the world of surfing, however disconnected the two might be. Of his decision to focus on surfing, Finnegan said that he was at first against the idea. He said, “Writing about surfing felt like coming out of a certain closet. It was a big part of my life, but not something I liked to talk about.”

He continued, “There was no good reason to write such a book — the world definitely didn’t need it. But I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time and energy chasing waves.”

Finnegan’s devotion to the sport and its influence on his life and work become obvious as he unravels the adventures of his life on the ocean and across the world.

Finnegan will present Barbarian Days this Tuesday, Feb. 23 at 4:30 p.m. in the Axinn Center at Starr Library in the Abernathy Room.​