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Author Shares Global Surfing Adventures With La Jolla Fans

William Finnegan surfing in Tavarua, Fiji, 2002
Ken Seino
William Finnegan surfing in Tavarua, Fiji, 2002
Author Shares Global Surfing Adventures With La Jolla Fans
Author Shares Global Surfing Adventures With La Jolla Fans GUEST:William Finnegan, author, "Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life"

THIS IS KPBS MIDDAY EDITION. I'M MAUREEN CAVANAUGH. SURFING IS PART OF THE SAN DIEGO LANDSCAPE. SURFERS, SURFBOARDS, WETSUITS HANGING UP TO DRY, IT IS WHAT WE SEE EVERYDAY. SO WHEN SOMEONE SAYS THEY HAVE HAD A LIFELONG LOVE OF SURFING, EVEN AN OBSESSION THAT HAS TAKEN THEM AROUND THE GLOBE, IT IS SOMETHING MOST OF US CAN UNDERSTAND. A NEW BOOK BY AN AWARD-WINNING JOURNALIST WITH THE NEW YORKER DESCRIBES HIS YOUTH SPENT AS A SURFING VAGABOND TRAVELING THE WORLD SERVING THE GREAT BEACHES FROM HAWAII TO AUSTRALIA TO SOUTH AFRICA. IN THE PROCESS, HE CONFRONTED SOME BIG QUESTIONS ABOUT THE LORE OF DANGER AND THE PLEASURES OF FOLLOWING A PASSION. JOINING ME IS WILLIAM FINNEGAN, AUTHOR OF "BARBARIAN DAYS: A SURFING LIFE". WELCOME TO THE PROGRAM. THANK YOU. I'M CURIOUS ABOUT THE TITLE OF YOUR BOOK. I CAN UNDERSTAND VAGABOND DAYS OR GYPSY DAYS, WHY BARBARIAN? WELL, IT'S AN OVERARCHING METAPHOR IN THE BOOK. THERE IS THIS -- ON THIS WEATHER -- THERE'S ALL PULLED TO BE A CITIZEN IN THE ANCIENT SENSE OF THE WORD. WANT TO BE USEFUL, PRODUCTIVE AND HIM A CASE IT IS BEING A JOURNALIST AND WRITER. THERE IS ALSO A STRONG PULL IN MY LIFE IN THE OTHER DIRECTION AS SORT OF A PILOT -- BIPOLAR LIFE OF IRRESPONSIBILITY ITS NATURE WORSHIP, FEROCIOUS DEVOTION TO STRANGE GODS. ITS PAGAN. YES AND REJECTION OF ALL THE GOOD CONVENTIONAL VALUES OF DUTY AND ACHIEVEMENT. I STRUGGLE BETWEEN THOSE TWO THINGS OVER TIME AND THIS IS AN ATTEMPT TO ACCOUNT FOR ALL OF THOSE -- IT'S BEEN 50 YEARS OF ALL OF THOSE DAYS. WHEN DID YOU START SURFING? I WAS 10 YEARS OLD. I SERVED IN THAN IN ALL FREE. WHAT CO--- SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA, IN VENTURA NORTH OF LA AND WHEN I WAS 13 WE MOVED TO HAWAII WHICH WAS A DREAM COME TRUE. WE LIVED IN A COTTAGE NEAR THE BEACH IN HONOLULU AND I GOT MORE SERIOUS ABOUT IT THERE. DIFFERENT TYPES OF WAYS, STYLES OF WRITING. WENDED SURFING BECOME A QUEST FOR YOU? IT WAS AN UNCONSCIOUS THINK THAT IT WASN'T HOW I THOUGHT OF MYSELF. I DID IT ALL THE TIME. THROUGH HIGH SCHOOL COLLEGE, GRADUATE SCHOOL I JUST DID IT AND DID NOT THINK ABOUT IT AND THEN AT A CERTAIN POINT, AFTER GRADUATE SCHOOL I SAVED MONEY AND WAS WORKING ON THE RAILROAD IN CALIFORNIA AND SAVED MONEY AND JUST DID NOT -- IT FELT AMENDATORY TO LEAVE FOR THE SOUTH SEAS. I HAVE MONEY IN MY POCKET'S TIME AND HAVE BEEN GONE NEARLY 4 YEARS, SOUTH PACIFIC AUSTRALIA, SOUTH ASIA, SOUTHERN AFRICA, JUST SUPPORTING MYSELF BY ODD JOBS AS I WENT AND I DID QUESTION WHAT I WAS DOING A LOT OF THE TIME AND WHAT I FELT LOST AND LIKE I WAS WASTING MY LIFE MOST OF MY 20s DOING THAT AND YET, IT WAS DOG WHISTLE UNCONSCIOUS KIND OF LIFE UNTIL MAYBE MY 30s I STARTED WRITING ABOUT SERVING -- SURFING. I BEGAN TO TRIED IT MAKE IT MORE CONSCIOUS. YOU STARTED TO WRITE. DID YOU START TO WRITE ABOUT POLITICS RIGHT AWAY OR IF SOMETHING HAPPENED? WAS IT AN AMALGAM OF YOUR WORLD TRAVELS THAT INFLUENCED THAT DIRECTION OF YOUR WRITING? I STARTED AS A FICTION WRITER. I DID FANFICTION, WRITING THREE NOVELS AND I WAS WORKING ON THE THIRD NOVEL AND ONE OF THE JOBS I GOT AROUND SURFING WAS AS A HIGH SCHOOL TEACHER OUTSIDE CAPE TOWN, BLACK TOWNSHIP AND THE BAD DAYS OF APARTHEID. IT TURNED INTO AN INSTANT -- INTENDS YEAR, STUDENTS WENT ON STRIKE AGAINST APARTHEID EDUCATION AND THE STATE STRUCK BACK A LOT OF PEOPLE WERE HURT AND KILLED IN THE COMMUNITY WHERE I WORKED AND I WAS IN THE CENTER OF THIS CONFLICT WHICH WAS CHANGING MY LIFE, POLITICALLY INTENSE THAT BY THE TIME THE YEAR WAS OVER, I WAS -- LOST INTEREST IN FICTION AND ONLY WANTED TO DO POLITICAL JOURNALISM AND I TO TEACH MYSELF HOW TO BE A JOURNALIST AND STARTED FREELANCING AND CAME BACK TO THE US NOT LONG AFTER AND PRETTY WELL -- POLITICS BROADLY DEFINED, WAR, CONFLICT, POWER, QUESTIONS OF POWER AND INJUSTICE HAD BEEN MY MAIN OCCUPATION EVER SINCE. SPEAKING WITH WILLIAM FINNEGAN AND HIS NEW MEMOIR, "BARBARIAN DAYS: A SURFING LIFE" . NUMBER FIVE ON THE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER --'S BESTSELLER LIST FOR NONFICTION. CONGRATULATIONS. THANK YOU. I SPOKE TO ANOTHER AUTHOR ABOUT SURFING AND IT LED HIM TO STUDY ZEN BUDDHISM. IT LED YOU TO COVER POLITICAL APPEALABLE AND WAR. HOW CAN THOSE TWO VERY DIFFERENT PATHS BE POSSIBLE? I WOULDN'T SAY SURFING LED ME TO WHAT INTERESTS ME AS A JOURNALIST. IT WAS -- IT KIND OF TOOK ME TO ALL KINDS OF DISTANT PLACES AND ONE OF THOSE TURNED OUT TO BE -- I WROTE TWO BITS ABOUT SOUTH AFRICA AND I WROTE A BOOK ABOUT MOZAMBIQUE NEXT-DOOR BUT I WAS GRABBED BY THE REGION. ALTHOUGH WRITING THIS BOOK AND RESPONSES I GET FROM PEOPLE, MANY OF WHICH ARE THIS IS NOT ABOUT SURFING PEOPLE KEEP TELLING ME WHICH I LOVE TO HEAR. IT'S ABOUT MEN, LOVE, -- IT'S NOT WRITTEN FOR SURFERS. IT'S WRITTEN FOR THE GENERAL READER'S I'M GLAD WHEN AN OLDER WORD HIM -- WHEN ONE SAYS THIS IS ABOUT HOW TO LEAVE. GLAD YOU -- THIS IS WRITTEN ABOUT HOW TO LIVE. GREAT, GLAD YOU THINK SO BUT IT'S MORE OBVIOUS NOW HOW SURFING AND SERVE TRAVEL INFORMED MY PROFESSIONAL LIFE AND WHAT I DO AND PEOPLE STRETCH THE ANALOGY IS A IS A SURFING LIKE WRITING? I THINK, YES WRITING A WHALE -- WAVE FEELS LIKE PLANNING A SENTENCE TOGETHER THAT WORKS AND FIGURING OUT A SPOT WHICH IS THE MAIN ACTIVITY THE WAY SURFING, READING THE WAVES, FIGURING OUT A SPOT IS LIKE FIGURING OUT A BIG STORY BUT IT WAS NOT SURFING THAT LED ME TO POLITICS BY ANY STRETCH, NO. YOU SAID THE BOAT BARBARIAN DRAY -- BARBARIAN DAYS WAS WRITTEN FOR A NON-SURFER BUT CAN A NON-SURFER UNDERSTAND IT BECAUSE YOU HAVE SOME REAL SURF LINGO AND THAT AND HOW DO YOU GET PAST THAT IN THE BOOK? I HAD FRIENDS AND FAMILIES THAT DON'T SERVE READING DRAFTS AND FLAGGING AND THEY CAN UNDERSTAND AND IT WAS FRUSTRATING HOW CAN YOU POSSIBLY NOT KNOW WHAT IS SAID IT AFTER YOU HEAR ME TALKING ABOUT THIS FOR YEARS. AS WELL AS AS WELL. I PAID ATTENTION TO THAT AND KEPT GOING BACK AND PUT ALL OF THE EXPLANATIONS LIKE WHAT A SWELL AND IF THAT IS AN A BARREL. IN THE FIRST CHAPTER WHICH IS A LONG CHAPTER ABOUT BEING A KID IN HAWAII, SURFING THEIR WINDOWS 13-14. AND THERE'S NO GLOSSARY BUT JUST A SLIP IN TECHNICAL TERMS TO INDUCE BASIC OCEANOGRAPHY AND WHERE WAVES COME FROM, THAT SORT OF THING. AND YOU HAVE TO REMEMBER AS YOU READ LATER ON WHAT YOU READ BECAUSE I DON'T TELL TWICE IN THREE TIMES. IT'S OKAY. SURFING -- WRITING SCENES WERE NOT SERVICES.BECAUSE YOU HAVE TO GET THEM IN THE WATER AND KEEP THEM ORIENTED BECAUSE THEY CAN DISORIENT BECAUSE THEY DON'T KNOW TERMS ARE SURFING TERMS BUT KEEP THEM ORIENTED, GIVE THEM A STAKE IN THE OUTCOME AND THAT WAY MAKE THE SCENES GO DOWN EASY, BOTH FOR SERVERS AND NONSERVICE. WE BROADCAST A SURFER, A COLORFUL DESCRIPTION. OUR WAVE DESCRIPTIONS LIKE CRUMBLY, PEAKY, BUMP, CHUNK, ARE THEY UNDERSTANDABLE TO SURFERS? SURE. HUNDREDS OF OTHER ADDITIVES. REPURPOSED NOUNS, YES IN FACT I WOULD LIKE TO SEE THE REPORT FOR THIS AFTERNOON. I'M GOING TO TRY TO SURF BEFORE MY NEXT ENGAGEMENT. WE HEAR THAT EVERYDAY. HAVING A SEPARATE LANGUAGE, IS THAT SORT OF SOMETHING THAT BONDS SURFERS TOGETHER OR DID IT JUST, BECAUSE YOU NEED WORDS TO DESCRIBE THINGS THAT EVERYDAY PEOPLE DON'T NECESSARILY HAVE TO DESCRIBE. BOTH. THE LANGUAGE ARISES OUT OF THE NEED AND I DON'T THINK SURFERS REALLY MUCH THINK ABOUT IT BUT YOU MEET AND OTHER SURFER AND YOU TALK ABOUT MY SPOT, YOUR SPOT, WHAT IS IT DOING TODAY AND YOU HAVE THIS WHOLE, HUGE LANGUAGE IT, AND THEY MAY USE A TERM YOU'VE EVER HEARD BEFORE AND YOU TAKE ON BUT MAINLY IT IS UNDERSTOOD AND THEY CAN BE QUITE BEAUTIFUL AS ANY KIND OF TECHNICAL BUT ALSO POETIC LANGUAGE TO DESCRIBE NATURE WOULD BE. BUT I TRY NOT TO INDULGE IT TOO MUCH IN THIS BOOK. I MENTIONED I WAS WRITING NOVELS WHEN I WAS YOUNGER, THE LAST ONE WAS ABOUT PEOPLE WORKING ON THE RAILROAD IN CALIFORNIA. I LOVE THE RAILROAD JARGON AND EDITORS, PUBLISHERS WERE INTERESTED IN IT BUT THEY SAID YOU HAVE TO DIAL DOWN THE JARGON. I SAID NO, I WON'T. THAT'S WHERE THE POETRY IS AND IT WENT UNPUBLISHED IF YOU CAN GO FOR TOO FAR DOWN THAT ROAD. REVIEWERS OF YOUR BOOK "BARBARIAN DAYS: A SURFING LIFE" HAVE NOTED THE MANY DESCRIPTIONS OF WAVES YOU SERVED . THEY COMMENT ON YOUR REMARKABLE RECALL OF THESE WAYS. WHY DO YOU THINK YOUR -- YOU REMEMBER THEM SO WELL? IT'S NOT THAT I DON'T -- THAT I REMEMBER THEM THAT WELL. I KEEP VOLUMINOUS JOURNALS. WHEN I WAS YOUNG. LESS DISTURBING THAN OTHER THINGS. I DIDN'T RECORD ANY WAY BY ANY STRETCH OF MY JOURNALS BUT I RECOVERED A LOT OF LETTERS TO FRIENDS AND THOSE FRIENDS WHO SURF, I WOULD WRITE GOT A GREAT WAY TODAY AND GO ON ABOUT IT. BUT IT IS HARD TO REMEMBER WAVES. YOU COME IN FROM A GIVEN SURF SESSION AND YOU GET 10 WEIGHT-30 WAVES IN THE SESSION AND YOU TRY TO REMEMBER ONE HALF HOUR LATER AND THEY ARE MANY TOGETHER AND THERE ARE PEOPLE WHO HAVE REMARKABLE RECALL, COMPETITORS TALK ABOUT WHAT THEY DEED IN THE HEAT AND THEY ARE RIGHT BUT IT IS HARD TO CALL IN VISUAL WAIST 30 YEARS LATER BUT I HAD ALL THIS DOCUMENTATION SO WHEN I RECALL IS A DESCRIPTION FROM THE DESCRIPTION, OH, I REMEMBER. BUT DO I REALLY REMEMBER OR IS IT WHAT I WROTE DOWN? ONE OF YOUR COLLEAGUES -- WHAT DO YOUR COLLEAGUES THINK ABOUT YOUR PASSION FOR SURVEY. YOU SAID YOU WERE HESITANT TO TELL PEOPLE AT FIRST. WHY IS THAT? WHEN I FIRST STARTED THE NEW YORKER AND JOINED THE STAFF AND 87, I WAS WRITING ABOUT POLITICS PRIMARILY AND WAS RUNNING A LOT OF POLITICAL OPINION COLUMNS I WAS ENGAGED IN POLICY DEBATES, INFORM POLICY, DRUG POLICY, OTHER SUBJECTS THAT INTERESTED ME AND I WAS ALSO WORKING ON A LONG SURFING PIECE ABOUT SAN FRANCISCO WHERE I LIVED PREVIOUSLY. AND I BEGAN TO GET NERVOUS ABOUT COMING OUT OF THE CLOSET AS A SURFER. IT'S A STEREOTYPE, DUMB SURFER AND I THOUGHT PEOPLE WOULD SAY, WAIT, YOU'RE JUST A DOM SURFER AND WE DON'T NEED TO LISTEN TO YOU ON THESE WEIGHTY TOPICS WHICH DID NOT HAPPEN. IT WAS NEEDLESS FEAR. IT'S INTERESTING BECAUSE I HAD A RELATIVE FROM THE MIDWEST COME IN RECENTLY AND I POINTED OUT SURFERS AND SHE SAID, YES, THOSE GUYS SPEND ALL THE TIME THERE. DO YOU EVER ASSOCIATE WITH THEM? AND PEOPLE HERE, POLITICIANS, EVERYBODY HERE SERFS. SO WHY DOES THAT REPUTATION LINGER, DO YOU THINK? THE STEREOTYPE HANGS ON FOR GOOD REASON BECAUSE THERE ARE MILLIONS OF GUYS WHO FIT IT PERFECTLY. WHICH ISN'T TO SAY -- I'M GOING TO SURF WITH A FRIEND THAT IS AN ANESTHESIOLOGIST THAT MUCH OF BOOKS ABOUT FIRST HIT -- FATIGUE ARE -- PHOTOGRAPHY, A MAN OF MANY PARTS. THERE ARE SURFERS TO HAVE OTHER THINGS IN THEIR LIFE BESIDES SURFING BUT IT'S AN ADDICTION. WITH THIS BOOK COMING OUT HAVE HAD PARENTS COME TO ME AS HAVE TWO BOYS WHO SURF AND THEY ARE EXCESSIVE AND I DON'T KNOW WHAT TO DO. WHAT SHOULD I DO? I SAY YOU NEED A COUNTERWEIGHT TO SURFING IN YOUR LIFE WHEN YOU ARE YOUNG. A GOOD EDUCATION IS A GOOD START THAT YOU REALLY NEED OF THE THINGS BECAUSE SURFING CAN TAKE OVER EVERYTHING. YOU END UP -- WORKING AS A BUS BOY AND NOTHING WRONG WITH A BUS BOY BUT YOU COULD'VE DONE OTHER THINGS YOU ARE 50, 60 CHASING WAVES AND YOU'VE DONE NOTHING ELSE. PEOPLE WHOSE JOBS AND -- WHOSE JOBS, GIRLFRIEND, EVERYTHING JUST TO CHASE WAVES. THERE'S SOMETHING TO THAT STEREOTYPE. HAVING SAID THAT, HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE SURFING'S PLACE IN YOUR LIFE NOW? IT'S BEEN UNDER CONTROL. I DO NOT SLEEP MUCH BECAUSE THE SURF LOOKS LIKE IT'S GOING TO BE GOOD. I SERVE IN NEW YORK A LOT AROUND THE WINTER. WHAT'S IT LIKE THERE? IT GETS GOOD, NOT GREAT. BRIEF WINDOWS OF SHORT INTERVALS BUT PUNCHY WAVES WITH -- WHEN THE WINDS ARE RIGHT FROM THE NORTH BOARD OF THE JERSEY SHORE, LONG ISLAND, I CAN GET THERE QUICKLY. MY FRIENDS AND I IN MANHATTAN AND REALLY WORTH IT BUT TO ABANDON YOUR DESK IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DAY AND BE GONE FOR FIVE HOURS, YOU WILL HAVE TO MAKE THAT UP SOMEWHERE SO I WORK A LOT OF NIGHT. IC. LET ME TELL EVERYONE, WILLIAM FINNEGAN WILL SPEAK ABOUT HIS BOOK "BARBARIAN DAYS: A SURFING LIFE" TONIGHT AT WAR WITH THE LA JOLLA AT 7:30 PM. I WANT TO THANK YOU SO MUCH. THINK YOU FOR HAVING ME. BE SURE TO WATCH KPBS EVENING EDITION AND FIVE AT 630 TONIGHT ON KPBS TELEVISION. JOIN US TOMORROW FOR DISCUSSIONS ON MIDDAY EDITION ON KPBS . I'M MAUREEN CAVANAUGH, THANK YOU FOR LISTENING.

William Finnegan, author of "Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life," is pictured in this undated photo.
William Finnegan, author of "Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life," is pictured in this undated photo.

Before he became an award-winning journalist for the New Yorker, William Finnegan was a surfer.

In his new memoir, "Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life," Finnegan revisits his early love of surfing, and traces its evolution into a lifelong obsession.

Finnegan said the first time he surfed was in San Onofre when he was 10 years old. His family later moved to Hawaii, which was a surfer's dream come true.

But finding time to surf while keeping up with his responsibilities is difficult.

"There's this sort of pull to be a citizen in an ancient sense of the word but there's also a very strong pull for irresponsibility," Finnegan told KPBS Midday Edition on Monday. "This is an attempt to account for all those days."

His book follows his days as a surfing vagabond, catching waves at beaches around the world, from Hawaii to South Africa.

Finnegan — who reports on politics from the Balkans, Africa, Central America — also wrote several fiction and non-fiction books.

Finnegan presented his memoir at Warwick's Books in August.