I had a terrible attitude, I was really arrogant. I’d say, ‘That’s because you’re stupid,’ and that kinda thing. So, I came off like I had a really bad attitude, but the truth was that I heard that all the time. I wrote fairly avant-garde fiction and it was incomprehensible for a lot of people. Workshops made me start worrying about readers for the first time. I had just been showing my writing to just an inner circle of people who were sympathetic to what I was doing, or forced to be interested because they were friends. Then, suddenly, in these workshops I was presenting to classmates who were nice, generally, but who also were critical.
While I seemed never to take any of this criticism constructively, it affected me at least subconsciously and I started thinking more and more about readers in the third of those novels, which was about people working on the railroad. I tried more to write with the thought, ‘What would it be like to read this?’ and tried to make it fun to read. That one I did try to get published. Almost succeeded.
It pushed me in the direction of thinking about writing as communication as opposed to pure self-expression. It was more a fundamental shift in perspective, and was very much due to the MFA program.
JB: What led you to switch from fiction to nonfiction?
WF: Actually I think the first substantial piece of nonfiction I reported was in, I want to say in the student paper at the University of Montana or some paper in Missoula.
I started to push in that direction when I was overseas after the MFA. I started doing some travel writing, and other forms of nonfiction. Then I got more interested in politics and started doing political essays. The experience of living in Cape Town and teaching high school in the township there outside Cape Town—during the bad old days of apartheid—turned me toward political journalism. It was such an intense political year. I was finishing up that third novel, that railroad novel, but I was just losing interest in the kind of fiction I was doing.
I just really wanted to write about politics and power. I had all these day jobs, like teaching school for years, while writing on the side. It was after that high school gig I decided that’s it— I’m now going to write for a living. I started freelancing, really trying to sell stuff, from, say, 1980-1981. So, of course I went totally broke.
I’d saved some money teaching, but just was broke. I got back to the U.S. and moved in with my parents in California, slowly making my way. It was that experience of teaching that set me on the track of being a professional writer. I started selling more stuff, started selling to The New Yorker, then finally finished that book in ’86. And by that time I’d moved to New York and was kind of all in.
JB: I quit a newspaper job in 2014 to freelance and immediately went broke as well.
WF: It’s a good way to learn humility.
JB: Anyway, with your first book, Crossing the Line, how was the initial process of finding an agent and publisher?
WF: I’d actually found an agent for the railroad novel, which I did finish while living in Cape Town. I sent some chapters to New York and some agents were interested. I signed up with one of them. They were trying to sell that railroad novel, and I was freelancing along in the early 80s, and got the idea to write a book. I had written a magazine piece about teaching in South Africa and was dissatisfied with the 6,000 words I had to write the story. I felt like I didn’t do anybody justice at all in that short a space, so I wanted to write a book.
At first there was no interest, and the agent said she couldn’t sell it. She was getting offers from my magazine work about this and that—book ideas that weren’t mine. I didn’t take any of those, and then did a proposal and I sent it to her and she said nobody cares about South Africa.
It went to 20 publishers, I want to say, who turned it down. Number 21 offered me a tiny advance and a kind of begrudged contract. Nobody was very excited about the book except me. During the couple years it took to write it, South Africa kind of blew up and was all over the news. Suddenly the publisher was keen. I was being asked to speak here and there, because I’d written a bit about it and I’d lived there, so there was more interest by the time I finally turned the book in.
It was very standard, just chapters of a book to an agent, get an agent, proposal, circulate the proposal, get a contract, somehow live for several years on $10,000 and then turn it in.
JB: Simple as that.
WF: Yeah, pretty straightforward. I was living in San Francisco when I wrote that book and was out of my parents’ house. I managed to freelance enough to get my own place.
JB: Think you’ll ever take a stab at fiction again or are you too far gone?
WF: It’s a funny thing, that railroad novel was considered by a publisher, the same publisher who ended up publishing my first book. The editor said, ‘You know, if you could just open this up a little bit, dial back some of the railroad jargon,’—because it was about people working on the railroad and they have their own language, so I was describing the work and that world in that language—he said, ‘You know, it’s just a little impenetrable for your ordinary reader.’ I said I wouldn’t change a word, the arrogance of youth, and the work language was the whole point, the poetry that emerged from work. They didn’t publish it.
But recently I was encouraged to have another look at it, that it was perhaps still publishable with a little tinkering. I dug out that manuscript, been in a drawer for decades, tried to read it and I couldn’t understand it. From page 1, I could not understand anything; which way was the train going? What is this? I had written it but I couldn’t understand it. So, I was a little discouraged.
I did write a sort of novella some years ago. But I thought it was so bad that I decided not to show it to people. That move, from fiction to non—especially once you’ve learned how to write nonfiction and use the power that fact gives to prose—to just relinquish that and attempt this magic trick, to invent a world and characters and cause readers to suspend disbelief and enter into that world, that magic trick seems daunting and I fear I can’t perform it where I once believed I could.
JB: On that note, with the jargon, Barbarian Days brought rather detailed surfing terms and knowledge to laypeople. How’d you settle on the ways to define words and phrases unique to surfing?
WF: It was one of the main challenges of writing the book. I had my wife and a couple particular people who didn’t have any interest in surfing, but especially her, read chapters and flag any surfing terms they didn’t understand. Then I’d go back and try and make it transparent, make it understandable. It was quite frustrating. My wife would say, ‘Channel? What’s this here? I don’t understand what you’re talking about.’ I’d say, ‘You know, channel. That’s not even a surfing term, what are you talking about? It’s like deep water where ships go? Where no waves break?’ Then, ‘Nope, I don’t understand it.’ And, ‘Alright, channel, deep water where…’ and I’d stick in these things to explain each term of art whenever it didn’t seem too lame or slow things down too much.
Channel’s a bad example, but there are plenty of words unique to surfing or are used in a particular way in surfing. I noticed that some of the translations, like the French translation includes a glossary because there’s the language difference, but then all getting these English surf terms into French. So they provide a glossary of surfing terminology. That was a threat with this book, but I thought no, I’m not going to do that.
Each time I think a term really needs to be explained I tried to quickly explain it and bury it in the narrative so it’s moving and doesn’t bore surfers, and not insult their intelligence at every turn. Then I would assume that once I had defined a term I didn’t need to do it again. I’d give the readers that benefit of the doubt: you’ve heard it, you’ve got it. By a surfing scene in the middle of the book, there are no explanations and it’s just as I would tell it to somebody who speaks the dialect.
Actually, plenty of people who didn’t know surfing and read the book said that they liked being introduced to this tribal language, being able to understand it and picture things and understand a surfing scene—what’s at stake, where we are at any given moment or what’s going on. It was hard to do. For other surfers, it’s easy. But everybody else you have to keep oriented and up on what’s going on. It’s a challenge.
I had done a piece, a profile of a surfer for The New Yorker back in the ‘90s. I’d been through this process, had editors saying, ‘What does this mean what does this mean,’ and having to explain everything. I adapted that piece into one of the chapters of Barbarian Days. That was a bear of a job. It was the hardest chapter to write, strangely enough, even though it was the one chapter I’d already written. Adapting it from the magazine was really hard.
It was a magazine profile and that was not what I wanted the chapter to be, at all. The profile subject figured large in that chapter, but it shouldn’t have any magazine-profile feeling to it. I still don’t think I got all that material, that feeling, out of it. I worked at it for a couple years but I still look at it sometimes and wince.
But anyway, I’d gone through this with editors saying, ‘Define this, define this,’ and that whole profile seemed really corny as I re-read it. I was happy to do a version of that story and of those scenes that satisfied me more. But the chapter is pretty deep in the book. It’s the San Francisco chapter, and I had the advantage that readers who got this far know a bunch of surf terms by now, so I didn’t have to do any of the really lame explanations.
JB: I can see unexpected issues popping up in the process of translating a magazine article into the larger context of a book.
WF: Some of my books have appeared in a different form in The New Yorker. There used to be a sort of cottage publishing industry in magazines and with The New Yorker, when it published very long pieces, multi-part pieces. When I first started working there in the ‘80s they were still doing that, maybe into the ‘90s. Some of the books seemed to come out virtually exactly the same.
JB: That’s kind of how the Mozambique book came about, right?
WF: Yeah, more than half of that came out in a different version in the magazine, you’re right. Or maybe half of it, roughly. But there was this sort of cottage industry in publishing running up through about that time in The New Yorker, longer New Yorker pieces that would come out later as books.
I didn’t do that. I had to read those Mozambique pieces and then the book A Complicated War—this is true for a couple of my other books, too—the magazine pieces just didn’t translate. Having a date on the cover, as you do in a magazine, puts it in a certain tense, a sort of continuous present tense. Ok, September 27, that’s where we are as we speak. And then the book you’re writing for the long haul, for posterity one hopes, so a lot of stuff goes into the past tense. And it’s like every sentence has to be re-tuned, I found, to publish it as a book. I found a lot of work where maybe some other writers didn’t think it needed it. But nothing quite as tricky as that damn San Francisco chapter.
JB: Was there much of a difference between writing the reporting-based books versus Barbarian Days?
WF: If you’re a journalist it’s nerve-wracking to do a memoir and have to keep reminding yourself the subject is me. Me, me, me, me. Yes, you’re describing friends and friendships and all kinds of relationships with other people. But the main thread is yourself. So, for example, that chapter had to be completely redone. The main subject was not some other guy I knew. I wasn’t a reporter in the situation, I was the protagonist. It’s really a fundamental shift, which as I said, I didn’t feel like I was successfully making even after two years of scratching at it.