“He thought it was Wonderful. I Thought it was Absolutely Horrifying.” Talking Story with Barbarian Days Author William Finnegan, Part II.
by Chris Dixon
William Finnegan. Surfing Ocean Beach. Photo from Barbarian Playing Doc’s Games, The New Yorker, 1992.
Editor’s Note. Last week, I fired up Skype for a chat with author and longtime New Yorker reporter William Finnegan. Finnegan, 62, is a personal hero. He’s a Manhattan-based, hard-nosed, badass, no-bullshit, journalist’s journalist, and surfing’s most accomplished wordsmith. In his recently released New York Times bestselling memoir Barbarian Days, A Surfing Life, Finnegan has written a sweeping, engrossing narrative that literally took six decades of living to write. Earlier this week, we talked about the immorality of surfing hurricane waves. Today, Finnegan discusses how hard it was to write Barbarian Days, his seminal New Yorker article “Playing Doc’s Games,” the drop-knee cutback, and the terror of big Ocean Beach. — CD
Barbarian Days. Well worth 1926 pennies.
Chris Dixon: Ok, let’s talk about Barbarian Days. I’m wondering from your verbal perspective, why did you feel it was time to write a book about your own personal life experience as a surfer when you, aside from “Playing Doc’s Games,” which got somewhat into that – you haven’t written much about your own personal life.
William Finnegan: My other books have all been more journalistic, it’s true – although my first one, Crossing the Line, about teaching at a black high school in South Africa was pretty first-person. Still, I was strongly trying to report on South Africa and what I saw there.
I didn’t recently decide it was time to write this book (Barbarian Days). It was twenty-something years in the making. It just finally got done now. It started with that piece in The New Yorker in ‘92 – “Playing Doc’s Games” – which in itself took 7 years to write. So really this is a long, old project.
The genesis. I was living in San Francisco, freelancing. I sent a short political piece over the transom to The New Yorker and someone in the editor’s office said, “If you want to write longer pieces, this would be a good time to submit something to the editor – you’ve got his attention.”
So I felt like I needed to come up with something in five minutes – right now. And I didn’t have any ideas. So I just sort of looked around and proposed a profile of Mark Renneker. I was surfing with him at Ocean Beach at the time – and he was this big colorful character that struck me as a John McPhee type hero. Not that I’m John McPhee, but I could see Mark in The New Yorker. Perhaps under someone else’s byline!
I said “Oh, there’s this amazing doctor in San Francisco. This big-wave surfer.” And I got the assignment. So I started taking extensive notes and reporting it while I was still in San Francisco. But, as I say, it took seven years to write. I had lots of inhibitions. I was not sure at all that I wanted to come out of the closet as a surfer. I was writing about politics, writing opinion pieces. I joined the staff of The New Yorker in ’87 and I was increasingly engaged in public policy debates, and I didn’t want to undermine my own position. Like people would be saying, “What? You’re just a dumb surfer. We don’t need to take you seriously.” Ultimately, when the piece did run, nobody said that, nobody cared at all. It wasn’t an issue. I was also worried that Mark wouldn’t like it – as indeed he didn’t. Generally, it just didn’t feel urgent. I mean, I was writing about these worthy topics. War, apartheid, poverty, stories that sort of drove themselves – that were self-justifying. Of course this is important, I must do this. Surfing—I just couldn’t justify putting all the time and effort into a piece that wasn’t, you know, self-evidently important with a capital “I.”
So all these inhibitions conspired to slow down the writing, plus general laziness and work avoidance. But I finally got it done, and it ran, and it got a lot of attention, to the extent that my publisher…(he pauses) Well – I mean, during that seven years, I didn’t just sit on my ass, I published three books, I joined The New Yorker. I wrote a lot.
CD: It was just one of those assignments you had in your back pocket that got bigger and bigger, right?
WF: Exactly. So after “Playing Doc’s Games” ran, my publisher came to me and said “Let’s do this as a book. People are talking about it. It’s strange and interesting and fresh stuff.” And I’d actually written more. The piece in the magazine was 39,000 words, a two-parter – it was practically a book. And I had a book’s worth of material – but I didn’t want to publish it as a book. It just didn’t feel right, for a lot of reasons. Including the fact that Mark didn’t like it. I didn’t want to rub his nose in it any more. The piece had just evolved in the haphazard way it had, and if I were going to write a book about my surfing life, or about surfing and friendship, this wasn’t going to be it. So I told the publisher, “Look, I’ve surfed with all kinds of different and really interesting people in other places and other times that would actually be more interesting than this San Francisco story.”
And she said, “Okay good, write that book.” I said, “Mmm, okay,” but I didn’t really commit to it. That was more than twenty years ago. I continued to write for the magazine, published a big book about American poverty, “Cold New World.” Then, about ten years ago, my best friend in high school, Domenic Mastrippolito, sent me, out of the blue, a boxful of letters that I’d written and he’d kept. It was really unlikely. He’s not the sort of person who would keep letters. But it was this great trove of stuff that I wrote when I was 13 and 14, after my family moved to Honolulu from L.A. Domenic was back on the mainland. I was such a loquacious correspondent. It was like I couldn’t shut up. There were fifty, sixty, eighty letters in this box — just raw, raw material. A lot of it about surfing. Lots of elaborate descriptions of single waves. So I was reading through it all, and wincing at my 13-year-old prose style, and lots of immature cultural stuff that was outrageous and silly, but at the same time I could really feel, wow, this is the backbone of the book I’ve been contemplating, at least the first chapter.
So I started writing – this was nearly ten years ago – and I just kept going. I could kind of see the whole story from there. I’ll start it when I was 13 in Hawaii, and then, in the next chapter, back up to how I got into surfing, and then run it forward.
Someone who just interviewed me yesterday, from Miami, said a funny thing. He said, “I don’t know anything about surfing. But I see in this first chapter, you’re describing this cut thing?” “Cut thing?” I said, “Oh, you mean the drop-knee cutback that I showed up with in Hawaii.” Which, I don’t know if you remember, was this thing we used to do in the mid-60’s.
CD: Absolutely. And they weren’t really doing it in Hawaii.
WF: Right. And I was kind of getting rid of cold-water maneuvers as I admired and tried to emulate the Hawaiian kids I was surfing with. Then it turned out that my hero, a slightly older kid named Glenn Kaulukukui, liked the drop-knee cutback. He was judging a little contest I was in, and he said, “Every time you do that drop-knee, bwah, I give you big points.”
So in the book there’s this little riff about that maneuver. And this non-surfing interviewer says, “So this cut thing you do, I see you’re doing that in the structure of the book itself. The first chapter, it’s here, and then you do one of these drop-knee cutbacks in the second chapter, going the other way, back in time. Is that right?”
And I said, “No, I was not thinking of that, of course not.”
CD: Isn’t that weird – that’s always one of the difficulties of writing from any discipline – especially something like surfing. Is defining what you’re talking about to someone who doesn’t do what you’re talking about. To you, you mention doing a drop-knee cutback as a matter of course, and this guy who doesn’t know what that is, fixates on it – like you’ve only done two drop-knee cutbacks in your life.
WF: Yeah. The drop-knee cutback was, like, a staple of my surfing at the time. You can even see a photo of me doing one in the book, doing kind of a soft one off the top at Queens. But that’s how a lot of literary critics work. They make these leaps and say, “Ahh, well, the writer mentions this, and that’s the form of that.”
Drop knee cutback from the book. Photo courtesy: William Finnegan.
It’s far-fetched, but also kind of sweet. But you’re completely right – this book is written for the general reader, for non-surfers, and a lot of the challenge is to somehow make surfing interesting to people who are not interested in surfing. So I had readers – my wife and other friends, my editor — people who know nothing and care nothing about surfing — go through the manuscript, and tell me whenever they didn’t understand something. It’s almost a technical problem; “Well, I don’t understand this.” And I’d move some explanatory material higher, so they wouldn’t get lost at that point, or add more explanation. How waves are formed. What’s a set, and what’s a swell? Some of the basics. Sometimes I was horrified. I remember my wife saying, “What’s a channel again?”
“What do you mean, what’s a channel? That’s not a technical term.”
She’d say, “I don’t care. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
That was in the opening pages, paddling out at Cliffs at Diamond Head, so then it’s “alright, alright, alright,” a channel is deeper water where no waves break.
So I did some of that, but not nearly as much as I did in “Playing Doc’s Games,” which I had to adapt. It ended up being the basis of a chapter. And it was the hardest chapter to write.
CD: I knew it. I was gonna ask you about that. I knew that had to be the hardest chapter to write in the book.
WF: It was. It was so…I went back to it year after year, just beating my head against the wall with these re-writes, trying to rake out the magazine stuff. I mean, I found the piece incredibly corny – coming back to it after many years. Just embarrassing. I can’t believe I published this. There were so many places where the editors, or the copy editors, or the fact checkers had said, “You gotta explain this.” And so I did, often in a clumsy way. The editor in chief said, “Oh, you must tell us about Gidget.” And so I did. Or whatever. I had no interest in Gidget. So I got to take all that out, which was actually a pleasure. You know, the little potted history of surfing—out! Although I actually ended up putting some of that stuff in the first chapter.
CD: But then you also had to do things – like in “Playing Doc’s Games,” there’s the passage where you describe getting nailed by a big wave and you described the wave going over you as a basso profundo, but you also have to describe taking waves on the head way earlier in the book. But you can’t leave that descriptor out, so it must have been really hard to do that, and also to weave in the chronologies.
The passage from the original New Yorker article:
The lip of the wave hitting the surface above me sounded like a bolt of lightning exploding at very close range, and it filled the water with shock waves. I managed to stay underneath the turbulence, but when I surfaced I saw that the third wave of the set belonged to another order of being. It was bigger, thicker, and drawing much more heavily off the bottom than the others. My arms felt rubbery, and I started hyperventilating. I dived very early and very deep. The deeper I swam, the colder and darker the water got. The noise as the wave broke was preternaturally low, a basso profundo of utter violence, and the force pulling me backward and upward felt like some nightmare inversion of gravity.
WF: I think the passage you’re referring to actually wasn’t too much trouble. But it had the same problem that every passage from that piece, every passage in that chapter, had, which was: everything that now comes before it, in the book. Trying to keep track of it all, and not repeat, and not start condescending to the reader. Because now I’m really assuming that the reader paid close attention in the first chapters, where a lot of surf stuff got explained. I’m not redefining any terms. More than that, I’m trying to speak my language about surf, and let the surfers in the story speak their language, without a bunch of footnotes, and then to respect the reader, as in, you’re gonna get this, you’re gonna get this.
The late, great Jay Moriarity and “Doc” Mark Renneker. On the boat at the Mavericks contest, 1999. Photo: Chris Dixon
So there’s all that. Then, in any given passage, I had to identify all the magazine profile-y stuff about Mark. That had to come out, out, out. This is now my story. It’s not a profile. But how to put myself more in the centre—it’s not as easy as it sounds. But that particular passage – I didn’t have much trouble with it. It wasn’t one of those scenes that was written for the magazine, in the late 80’s or early 90’s, and now didn’t ring true. It didn’t have that problem, or at least not too badly, partly because nowhere else in the book, at least not before the San Francisco chapter, do I really bear down on what it’s like to be diving under giant waves. I mean that was a truly terrifying set. I actually thought that, if I got sucked over and there was a wave behind that one, that there might be a two-wave hold-down. And I don’t know how deep the water was, but I never, ever, in several winters of surfing Ocean Beach, I never saw a (outside set) wave go that square. I’ve seen the inside bar go square, but these were ten, twelve foot outside set waves and they were going square into not very much water. I didn’t understand what the hell was happening. I still don’t understand it. Afterward, Mark, who was right there next to me, was saying, “It was the period, man, it was the period.”
And he said it like it was this amazing thing, like he thought it was wonderful. I thought it was absolutely horrifying. It was one of the few times in my life where I’ve thought, if I’d been sucked over, I would not have survived. Either the first pummeling would have killed me, or, if there was wave behind it, I don’t think I would have made it to the surface in time.
So anyway, it was really, really scary. And, of course, nothing happened. My leash broke, and I swam in, and that was the end of that, but I was psychologically ruined. So that passage seemed worth keeping, pretty much as it was.
But you’re quite right. There was passage after passage in that San Francisco chapter that I just had to chuck out. There is no way to retain this stuff in this book. But oh, I love this paragraph! I worked so hard on it! It’s all fact-checked and edited and polished to a fare-thee-well. Too bad. Out, out, out.
Read part I of this series: Joaquin and the Indefensible Lust for Hurricane Surf.
Read part III of this series: We’ll Never Let Anybody Know. And we Stupidly Believed that Would Work.
If you’re not convinced to check out Barbarian Days, read to Finnegan’s seminal piece of surf journalism, Playing Doc’s Games. The New Yorker, August 24, 1992.