Craft and Career: a Q&A with William Finnegan

By Jason Bacaj

I talked with William Finnegan during the heart of the Atlantic hurricane season. The surf was pumping around New York City, he told me, and it took a couple tries before we connected over the phone. Finnegan, a staff writer at The New Yorker, was scheduled to appear in Missoula, at the University of Montana, to receive a Distinguished Alumni award and give a craft lecture. The award stems in part from his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life.  He earned a creative writing MFA in 1978 at UM. CutBank was founded and is still operated by UM’s Creative Writing Program, so I used the opportunity to talk with Finnegan about his time in the program and his career as an author and magazine writer.

JASON BACAJ: Why did you decide to do your MFA at the University of Montana?

WILLIAM FINNEGAN: I finished undergrad in California and didn’t have any graduate school plans. I’d never taken a creative writing course in college, I don’t think. But my close friend Bryan DiSalvatore lived in panhandle Idaho driving trucks after college, and he’d gotten interested in the MFA program at UM and enrolled. I visited him and his college friends who’d all collected in Missoula; a couple of them went to law school there. I spent time in Missoula and it looked fun, it looked worth doing. It wouldn’t have occurred to me otherwise, I must admit. I worked on the railroad at that time in California, as a brakeman.

JB: Did you keep working for the railroad during your MFA?

WF: I had a lot of jobs. I worked at the cemetery, Missoula City Cemetery. I worked for the city parks department. I had a job in the winters up at a ski area that’s probably not open anymore called Marshall up in Marshall Canyon. It was a really neat little place, I worked there as a lift operator. I had all kinds of funny jobs, but I had to be on call to the railroad back in California. So, sometimes I could be there for the fall term, sometimes I skipped out on the spring term. I was really patching it together, so it took me three years instead of two.

JB: What was your biggest takeaway from grad school?

WF: I was churning out fiction, short stories; churned out three unpublished novels. But I wasn’t sending it out, trying to get published. I was shy, really terrified of rejection. The workshops were just a revelation. I had to deal with readers. People who’d say, ‘I don’t understand this paragraph, this scene.’

It pushed me in the direction of thinking about writing as communication as opposed to pure self-expression.

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.

The kind of journalism I do is not at all like news. You have to come up with a structure; it’s narrative nonfiction. Even profiles should have a storyline
william-finnegan 2.jpg

JB: That’s one thing I was curious about. How do you go about parsing through all the wealth information of a lived experience, what all to include or cut, before you sit down and start writing?

WF: That’s a problem for longform nonfiction generally, like the kind of writing I typically do, going out reporting for weeks or months. I have many, many notebooks full and a 100,000-word piece is not wanted. So, you gotta pick and choose.

In the case of this memoir, I settled as surfing as the leitmotif, as the sensible subject and through-line, whether people were interested in surfing or not. So, I had to make it interesting and not just tell surf stories the way you would with other surfers. I scrabbled a lot trying to decide how to do it, where to start, what to include, as you say.

I started on the memoir maybe 10 years ago. I’d been working on it for a while, the book took forever to write. I’d been thinking about it and making false starts, when I got in the mail, unexpectedly, a big box full of letters that I’d written as a kid. I grew up in California, but when I was 13 my dad got a job in Hawaii and we moved there. I’d been surfing for a few years by then so it was very exciting, and I’d written a huge number of letters back to my best friend in L.A. And he’d saved them. He’d run across them in his mother’s garage and just thought I might be interested, sent them to me and suddenly there they were.

I didn’t remember writing them, and there were hundreds of pages of handwritten letters. Like every night in 1956-1957—I was 13, 14—I’d sit down and write many pages to my friend. Every wave, every girl, everything in school. And the writing the was absolutely terrible. Every wave was bitchin’, every girl was bitchin’, everything was bitchin’. But it was really evocative for me. The detail was just so dense. Mainly about where I went to school in Honolulu, and I thought, ‘Wow this is where this book starts right here.’ I quote from those letters in the first paragraph and many paragraphs thereafter. I was just really lucky. I mean, he’s not the sort of person who would keep your letters and yet his mother had and he had the good grace to put them into a box and send them to me.

It was just an instinct: the book begins here. I’ve heard plenty of people say, ‘Oh, I know why your book begins there. It’s because you worked all your life as a foreign correspondent and this was like a foreign-correspondent-in-training at age 13.’

I don’t know about that, but it felt like the right place to start. It was a world that the readers wouldn’t know about almost surely. It had a kind of roughness to it and was in strong contrast to the surf, which was my hiding place from all this crap on land. It wasn’t chronologically the beginning. In fact, I had an editor who wanted to switch the first two chapters. Because the second chapter, you know, I was born, I was raised, I started surfing, etc. I said no because I thought Honolulu was the right start.

Then telling your life story through this narrow, strange theme of surfing, was a little perverse in places. There were plenty of people who read it and said, ‘What the hell, you worked at The New Yorker for 30 years and you don’t say a single thing about it?’ The people who just know me through my work expect to read about the story behind the story about Mozambique or whatever. But that’s not what I was doing.

It’s an odd attitude you end up taking, deciding where to brush over—like, ‘Oh, I got married without explaining, but the important thing was I found a new surf spot.’ I know that’s sort of backward and perverse but it’s one way to organize a memoir.

JB: Yeah, I feel like a memoir has to be pretty tightly wound around a specific subject or interpretation of a portion of someone’s life.

WF: I think so, otherwise you could just go on forever.

JB: Sometimes it seems like there are fits and starts with writing until you can find a beginning or ending to latch onto. How does your writing process go with beginning a magazine piece versus a book?

WF: This book was a special case in that it was memoir. The reporting is just your life. All the rest of my work, virtually, is reported and there comes a point where you know as much as you’re going to know about a subject or as much as you need to write and your deadline’s bearing down on you and it’s time to organize the material into a narrative. The kind of journalism I do is not at all like news. You have to come up with a structure; it’s narrative nonfiction. Even profiles should have a storyline.

It’s not always hard and fast that you stop reporting and start writing, because you have to often keep reporting while you’re writing. For me, more than half of my work for the New Yorker over the years has been either international or far from where I live. So I have to go stay somewhere and live for a while. There’s the reporting in the field and then coming home to write.

If you’re doing it for a living, there’s always a clock ticking. When you’re working at a magazine you don’t really have the leisure to say, ‘Oh, my creative process isn’t quite complete yet.’ I mean, you gotta write it.

And yet, you also have to, as you say, find a beginning. If you’re writing long, you have to write opening scenes that pertain to the whole and suck people into the story, that makes them care about what happens, and that are solid enough as foundations to support the weight of everything that’s going to follow, whether it’s 10,000 words or 20 or 30,000. It’s an intuitive process. If you have a strong hunch go with it, and if the foundation starts to shake go back and look again because you might’ve been wrong.

I’ve had that plenty of times where I made a good run but felt I hadn’t established my authority over this material. I remember once I was trying to get a piece going—it ended up being a two-parter, a very long piece about this family in Connecticut. I made all these runs at it and I’d get thousands of words into it and before deciding it didn’t work.

Finally, a friend whom I’d been confiding in—complaining to, I should say—said, ‘Well, you told me…’ and he recited some of the basics of their neighborhood and their situation. He said that he’d never heard anything like that, so why don’t I just give the basic history to start. I tried writing a boring history lead. By the time I was a couple thousand words into it I felt like I was established as a person who can tell this story. And away I went. So, he was right. Sometimes it opens in an exciting scene, other times it’s a boring piece of potted history.

JB: One technique question, going back to memoir. From a journalism background, if it’s in quotes it’s verbatim and pristine but going back and re-creating it, how did you go about reconciling with the fact that a quote probably isn’t precise?

WF: Mostly by having very little dialogue. Because I just wasn’t sure. I had journals with some stuff in it. Then there’s the occasional just unforgettable ineffable ‘this is what she said to me I’ll never forget it’ kind of thing. But usually I didn’t feel confident about what was said, so I just summarized and paraphrased rather than quote.

In my reporting work, I’ve got notebooks and recordings and can prove to my fact checkers this is exactly word-for-word what was said. But with memoir it’s different. Beyond quotes, there’s the fact that nothing was on the record—this was private life. I’m used to going around and giving people my card, we’re talking we’re on the record and everybody understands that, I think, usually. Whereas with this, I’m just arrogating for myself the right to tell this story about things that happened with friends and loved ones where none of it was on the record.

It’s a big thing to do and ethically dubious and you have to check your facts with your old friends and decide what to include and what not to include and a lot more questions than simply did it happen.

JB: What was that fact-checking process like?

WF: I got into plenty of crazy negotiations with old friends over stuff where I thought for sure they’d say no you can’t put that in, they’d surprise me and say go ahead. And other times they’d say no absolutely not and I couldn’t understand why.

One example, I’d gone over this one scene with the other person who was there over and over all the details—she’s in California, I’m in New York. She had all these little fixes and changes and different recollections. I just kept accommodating her and put it the way she remembered it, and finally had it done, I thought. Then I get an email from her—"Oh, one last thing: you weren’t there.”

And I just… what do you mean I wasn’t there? We’ve been discussing for weeks. She says I wasn’t there, that I must’ve come at another time.

It’s a scene in the memoir where we’d been looking for years for her father and we find him. I was there. But this is a big event in her life, obviously, and she had the rights to it, so to speak. She had written a lot about it, poems and stories, and had erased me from the scene because I wasn’t crucial to the scene. I wasn’t a witness; I was the driver.

I thought the scene was would lose its impact. But I thought, ‘You know what? It’s a huge moment in her life and I was just a witness.’ It was important to me, but I was just a bystander so I just fudged it the way you do, and didn’t say ‘And this was the first time…’ Just made it ‘they’ and didn’t claim to have been there.

There’s different kinds of rights to material, right? You’re describing something important to somebody you’ve got to take seriously their own version of it and what they want published and what they don’t.

JB: When working on something that’s not for publication in a specific magazine like the New Yorker, do you send drafts to set readers you trust?

WF: I used to, I don’t anymore. I’ve gotten a lot lazier. I don’t even keep a journal these days. I don’t write anything that’s not already commissioned and doesn’t have an editor and a deadline and a paycheck attached to it.

Sometimes I will go over things with someone in a piece, it just depends. For instance, I just recently published a long profile of a federal prosecutor who specializes in extra-territorial terrorism cases, where she has to extradite somebody to the US for prosecution. It was full of sensitive material and national security stuff and personal security stuff. The subject of the profile had allowed me a lot of access, had really trusted me, so I allowed her an unusual amount of foreknowledge of what we were publishing. People pretty much know everything that’s going into a magazine piece, anyway, because the fact checker goes over it with them.

But I was going over stuff with her; I never showed her any of the piece. But I discussed every little detail in a way I wouldn’t normally, just because of the nature of her work and our agreement.

In 2016, William Finnegan won the Pulitzer Prize in Autobiography for Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life (Penguin). His book Cold New World: Growing Up in a Harder Country (Random House) was selected as a Los Angeles Times Best Nonfiction of 1998 and honored by the New York Times as a Notable Book of the Year. Another award-winning book, Crossing the Line: A Year in the Land of Apartheid (Harper & Row), was selected by the New York Times Book Review as one of the 10 best nonfiction books of 1986. Finnegan is also the author of A Complicated War: The Harrowing of Mozambique (University of California Press, 1998) and Dateline Soweto: Travels with Black South African Reporters (Harper & Row, 1995). Having served as a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1987, he has garnered numerous journalism awards including two Overseas Press Club Awards since 2008.

Jason Bacaj is a writer from West Virginia and the current Truman Capote Fellow at the University of Montana, where he is pursuing an MFA in nonfiction. He worked as a reporter for The Seattle Times, Anniston Star, and Bozeman Daily Chronicle and is a nonfiction editor of CutBank. His writing has appeared in publications such as Outside and Powder, and won several journalism awards including for Public Service Journalism in 2013 and Non-Deadline Reporting in 2012.