“Barbarian Days” Wins Pulitzer

William Finnegan on his latest award

Pulitzer Prize winner William Finnegan on his Balinese book tour last November.
Pulitzer Prize winner William Finnegan on his Balinese book tour last November. Photo: Finnegan

The 2016 Pulitzer Prize winners were announced yesterday, and among the winners is SURFER senior writer, and longtime New Yorker staffer, William Finnegan, whose memoir Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life took home top honors for Biography.

Finnegan's memoir has drawn high praise from all over the literary establishment, but none so much as from his fellow surfers. Writing in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, fellow NYC surfer/writer Thad Ziolkowski had this to say about Finnegan's autobiography: "There are too many breathtaking, original things in Barbarian Days…observations about surfing that have simply never been made before, or certainly never so well."

In awarding Finnegan the prize, the Pulitzer Prize Board described Barbarian Days as “an old-school adventure story, and intellectual autobiography, a social history, a literary road move, and an extraordinary exploration of the gradual mastering of an exacting little-understood art.”

We rang up Bill just an hour or so after the announcement, to hear how he was handling the big news.

AG: Congrats on the Pulitzer, Bill. We're so stoked for you. I hope you've got a celebratory surf mission in the works.

BF: Nothing yet. I was in Hawaii a month or so ago. And actually I got to go to Bali for my book tour.

What? How'd you scam that one?

These Australians have this big book festival, or writer's festival, or whatever. And they offered to pay my way, so I came. I stuck around a few weeks after. We got back-to-back swells, actually. I got a few big days. I surfed one pretty big day with an Australian friend, a human rights lawyer, at Padang Padang. We ended up surfing Impossibles. It was the best book tour event I’ve been on, for sure.

But no trips planned. I did surf here over the weekend, though, just out on Long Island. It was a three-day swell. So of course I skipped the third day and today it's beautiful.

So what does the award mean for the book? How's that shiny stamp on the cover going to change things?

I don't know how this is going to change things. I mean, my publisher's excited, that's for sure. I guess they'll take out more advertisements, do more marketing. My paperback's coming out next week [Tuesday, April 26th]. I've got three trips to the west coast over the next five weeks. I'm going to Australia in August. Byron Bay has a big book festival, actually, so I'm taking my daughter there.

You've done some serious, hard reporting. Does it feel odd to win the award for writing about your own more or less pedestrian life?

With the Pulitzer, you usually associate it with journalism. And this book was my big departure from journalism. This was my strange way of turning my reporter's eye on myself, my past, the people I've spent my life with, surf friends, family. It's the last thing I think of as journalism, and here it wins the big award that people think of as journalism. It's odd. Because [Barbarian Days] was something different, something writerly. So I guess for me this is a writing award, as far as I'm concerned.

You're still reporting stories for The New Yorker. How much of a distraction is publicity stuff and book tours?

It's a total distraction, and you feel like an ass talking about yourself, flogging your book instead of doing real work. I get pretty sick of myself [Laughs]. I'm sick to death of talking about surfing. I mean, I can talk surf with you all day—about swells, or how it was so good last week, or about lucking into a swell in Bali. But talking about surfing to the general public is a whole other thing. You're explaining. And sure, I've worked out some spiels, but it's not like talking surf. It's talking about surfing. And it feels so lame. Because I can't think of anything else new to say. You know, "What's it like to be in the tube?" Oh, god. I'm so sick of it.

Wasn't that the point of writing the book, so you wouldn't have to talk about it anymore?

I mean, it's this world that you and I and a whole lot of us live in, but in general people have a notion of what that world is from advertising or visual representations of surfing or whatever. I just wanted to say, you know, “No, actually it's more like this.” I think that's what people responded to.

I'm sure plenty of readers threw the book across the room and said, "Enough!" They couldn't bear another description of a wave, you know? But enough of them didn't. I got a lot of feedback from people who'd never surfed in their lives, and couldn't care less, saying "I never thought I'd read a paragraph about surfing, but I read your whole book." That's what earned me this award, honestly. People who didn't expect to be reading about this, but they got into it because they liked the writing.

If someone had told you, before you started writing Barbarian Days, that a book about surfing would win the Pulitzer, what would you think?

[Laughs] I'd have been very hard-pressed to picture that book.