Call & Response

Pulitzer Prize Winner William Finnegan Surfs to Stay Sane

In advance of his Aspen Words’ Winter Words appearance on March 20, the writer talks international journalism and staying hopeful in unsteady times.

By Katie Shapiro February 14, 2018 Published in the Midwinter/Spring 2018 issue of Aspen Sojourner

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William Finnegan at play on the water. 

Image: Scott Winer

Mozambique, Somalia, Sudan, Ukraine, and Moldova—these are just a few of the stamps William Finnegan has collected on his passport during 30-plus years as a staff writer at the New Yorker, covering issues from politics and poverty to organized crime and war. But he’s also surfed in many of the places he’s visited, and that subject—a lifelong passion—earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 2016 for the memoir Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life.

In advance of his Aspen Words’ Winter Words appearance in March—at which he’ll be interviewed by legendary local multisport athlete Charlie MacArthur—Finnegan discusses upended expectations, surfers’ obsessions, and staying hopeful in unsteady times.

AS: What do you plan on sharing with the Aspen audience?

WF: Some of the work I do, the international reporting, there’s a kind of story behind the story. The ideas you go in with and how those tend to fall apart and how you put together a more accurate picture of what’s going on in any of these places. I could talk about that all night, but it’s a fairly depressing subject, so I’ll also talk about my memoir and the conceptions of what it was supposed to be—that then proved inadequate and also fell apart.

AS: How have you kept a positive outlook—or not—while covering so many serious issues?

WF:  Sometimes by taking a break and going surfing—I’ve done that in all kinds of weird places. More generally—and I’ve been doing this kind of reporting long enough that I’ve seen some broad trends, and a lot of the trends are very dispiriting at this point—but in the broadest view, there isn’t any more conflict or violence in the world now than there has been historically.

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AS: You’ve said you don’t consider yourself a surf writer. How do you feel now after winning a Pulitzer on the subject?

WF: It’s a little ironic. I write about all of these heavy topics, and I end up winning for a book about my hobby. It was a complete break from all of my other work. There are people who make a living writing about surfing, but what’s rarely described is the experience of surfing.

AS: What about surf and ski culture creates such tight-knit communities?

WF: I know so much less about skiing, but I took it up when I went to grad school in Missoula and worked as a lift operator for a few winters. Working with the hardcore skiers, it was kind of a quick intro to the ski-bum culture, and it did strike me as familiar to surfing—the bum part. I think what binds everybody together is that shared experience that’s hard to convey to people who haven’t done it. We [surfers] have this obsession with the ocean and what it’s doing at any given moment. That creates a shared frenzy.

AS: Since you can’t surf in Aspen, will you ski?

WF: I came out here seven years ago and had some really great spring skiing days, so I’m looking forward to getting back up there. My daughter [ 16 ] loves to ski and is coming with me on this trip.

AS: Currently on your nightstand?

WF: I see Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach, Philip Roth’s The Counterlife, and Jane Mayer’s Dark Money.

See William Finnegan on Tuesday, March 20 at Paepcke Auditorium on the Aspen Institute campus.
Tickets: $25,

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