“I was Just a General Prick.” Barbarian Days Author William Finnegan on Surfing, Relationships and the Decisions We Make.

by Chris Dixon

Ed’s note: This is the final entry in a four-part interview with Barbarian Days author William Finnegan. You’ll find links to all the interviews at the end of this one.


“But everything felt different without Caryn: harsher, more jagged.”
William Finnegan, with Caryn Davidson, 1971. Photo courtesy: William Finnegan. 

CD: There’s something that struck me in reading Barbarian Days, and in my own life as a 48-year-old who’s now married with kids. First. I’m glad I had kids late, and second, I still feel really, really bad, sometimes terrible, about the way I’ve treated some of the women in my life. And that’s in part because of surfing. I wonder if you feel the same way. Just judging by the relationships you describe in the book. I mean, you were almost a father at 18. I’m wondering if you ever consider that alternate reality. What if you had become a parent young, and was surfing so much of a relationship killer? Were you a selfish sonofabitch? I was. I just wonder how you look back at the relationships you describe in the book, and what surfing did to those relationships.

BF: The short answer is I feel the same way you do. Both about when to have kids – also late, in my case – and what kind of boyfriend or partner I was when I was younger. I include in the book a conversation I had with a guy named André, a big-wave surfer. We met in Madeira. He was from Oregon, and he was really young, so I was surprised to hear that he was divorced. He started telling me about it, and it was a stark little story. Surfing broke up his marriage. You know, “These women gotta know what they’re getting into,” that sort of thing. He was actually hilarious. He said, “It’s like if you or I hooked up with a fanatical shopper. You’d have to accept that your entire life would be traveling around to malls. Or, really, more like waiting for malls to open.” He wasn’t trying to be funny. He was just thinking it through, from the other side, and I thought, Wow, great analogy. While we were talking, we were driving around looking for waves, and it wasn’t good, the tide was too high, so we ended up sleeping in the car by a surf spot — just a couple of shoppers waiting for the mall to open.


Madeira, 1998. Relationship killer. Photo courtesy: William Finnegan. 

But I never really experienced that kind of stark conflict with girlfriends over surfing. “What do you mean you’re going surfing?!” For one thing, my life was rarely that settled or domestic when I was young. More often, with a girlfriend, we’d be traveling. So I might be dragging her to Maui or Sri Lanka or wherever. The girlfriends I’m thinking of, as I say this were people with more smarts and education than I had, people who really wanted to do something in the world, but who just weren’t sure what that was yet. Which left them open to my agenda, which almost always involved looking for waves. I usually had a portable project—I was usually working on a novel—so I was okay with living in a hut in the jungle near the coast in Sri Lanka. And maybe my girlfriend had a project to work on, which would be good, but maybe she didn’t. The whole enterprise was driven by my surf mania.

Looking back, I can see now how thoughtless, how stubborn, I was. My plans about where to go when were pretty much non-negotiable. If a girlfriend, even a serious girlfriend, had said, Why don’t we go live in Nepal for awhile because I’m interested in something there? That would have been out of the question. No, it’s not on the coast. I’m not gonna live inland.

Actually, I did live inland sometimes. I lived in London a couple of times, and later spent three winters in Montana. But those stints were pretty much on my terms, too. I loved Montana, worked at a ski area. Dragged a girlfriend there from California. I think I was just a general prick. I was so bullheaded about what I wanted to do, and surfing usually played heavily into whatever that was. I’d do almost anything to make sure I got waves, even when I was deeply in love.


Truly, Madly. Deeply. Who do you love more? Finnegan, Cloudbreak, Fiji. 2005.
Photo courtesy: William Finnegan. 

Writing this book forced me to look at the life I didn’t choose. There was a pregnancy when I was 18. We didn’t go through with it, but talking it over with my childhood sweetheart, even now, 40 years later, was quite emotional. What might have been, what we might have had, if we had become parents then. I was so callow, I really didn’t think about it at the time. But now I can. And I can’t just say, Oh, that would’ve been a disaster. It would have been a different life. It might have been a more demanding, richer life. I would have had to grow up faster. In surf terms, it would’ve been more cramped, obviously. I couldn’t have left the U.S. after grad school and bummed around the world, chasing waves, for most of my 20’s. But that wouldn’t necessarily have been the worst thing for my soul. It’s the path not taken. And it’s as you say: surfing and its freedom imperatives probably helped determine some of those big, big life choices for me, certainly when I was young.

Later, when I got serious about making a living as a writer, and decided I needed to live in New York, I really had to fight the tidal pull of surfing to make that move. I was living at Ocean Beach, San Francisco, getting tons of waves, and I had to pick up and leave. And I thought, when I first moved to New York, This is it, there are no waves around here, I’m screwed. Maybe I’ll take the odd surf trip when work allows, become a vacation surfer. Arggh. Luckily, I was wrong about New York. There are waves. But for a while I was fairly freaked-out.


The author’s parents. Bill and Pat Finnegan. Yosemite, 1990’s.
Photo courtesy: William Finnegan. 

I was also really lucky with the woman I married. We met in 1980 in Cape Town. She had zero interest in surfing. Refused to even watch me surf. Has never taken a pic of me surfing, to this day, despite being around for some great sessions. Watching surfing is just too boring, she says. She’d rather shoot herself than pretend to be interested. But the flip side to all this extravagant indifference has been a ton of tolerance. She has never objected to my going surfing, never moaned about it. If I want to go, I should go. She’s good at amusing herself. Even when I’ve had close calls, in bigger waves, she hasn’t asked me to dial it back. She says she trusts my judgment – not sure about that call. I know a lot of surfers who’ve had problems with their partners about the amount of time they spend chasing waves—endless negotiations, especially once they have kids. I’ve been spared that kind of conflict.

CD: It’s interesting. To me, it’s never been a question of either or. It’s been more, surfing is part of who I am, but so are you, honey. I think a lot of people who don’t understand their surfing partners come to resent their surfing, or whatever that activity is that lights their fire. When it really isn’t and shouldn’t be looked at in those sorts of terms. It should almost be looked at from sort of a mental health perspective. If you’re locked into surfing, or a lot of other things – biking, skateboarding, snowboarding, whatever – you have to be able to express yourself that way, or have those experiences, or you kind of go nuts.


The 62-year-old Finnegan, feeding the addiction in Indonesia a few weeks ago.
Photo courtesy: William Finnegan. 

BF: Agreed. Mental health is a good way to put it. You need to be with somebody who has their own thing, and is happy to spend lots of time doing it. Somebody self-reliant, who doesn’t take it personally when you want to surf.


Mollie Finnegan, 2009. “She’s the most important person in my life.”
Photo courtesy: William Finneg

I actually have more conflict with my daughter. She says, “No, you can’t go surfing.” We’ll be in Martinique, or someplace, on vacation, and I’ll see some waves, and I’ll start to see some boards around. Ah, I can borrow a board, I’ll get some waves, alright! And she can read my mind, of course, and just puts her foot down. “No, you’re going snorkeling with me.” She’s 14. She’s like her mother—not interested in surfing—but without the tolerance. “You’re not leaving me sitting on the beach.” What can I do? I can’t scream and pout. I’m an adult. She’s the most important person in my life. We go snorkeling.

Part I of this series:
Life In Salt. Talking Story with Barbarian Days Author William Finnegan, Part I. Joaquin and the Indefensible Lust for Hurricane Surf.

Part II of this series: 
“He thought it was Wonderful. I Thought it was Absolutely Horrifying.” Talking Story with Barbarian Days Author William Finnegan, Part II.

Part III of this series:
We’ll Never Let Anybody Know. And We Stupidly Believed That Would Work. From Tavarua to Nias with Barbarian Days Author William Finnegan


William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days. Well worth 1926 pennies.

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