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William Finnegan

Journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Barbarian Days

  • About William Finnegan

    William Finnegan is an award-winning journalist and the author of five books. A New Yorker staff writer since 1987, Finnegan has reported extensively on conflict and culture in many different parts of the world, including Africa, Mexico, Central America, South America, Eastern Europe, the Persian Gulf, and the United States. In addition to his work as a journalist, Finnegan is the author of the memoir Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, which received the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Autobiography and was one of the most acclaimed nonfiction books of the year.

    Barbarian Days is more than just a memoir of great waves discovered and ridden. It is a story of family, friendships, love, coming-of-age, and the gradual mastering of an exacting, little-understood art, told with such lyricism and insight that even non-surfers will be swept along for the ride. Raised in California and Hawaii, Finnegan has chased waves across the globe since childhood—through the South Pacific, Australia, Indonesia, and Africa. His wide-angle curiosity and sympathies open up new worlds with self-deprecating humor and sensitivity.

    Finnegan is a sincere and funny speaker. He can talk about his double life as a journalist, covering civil wars and international organized crime, and his far-flung adventures as a serious surfer. He also gives insightful talks on how he came to write his captivating autobiography.

    Finnegan has received numerous accolades for his work at The New Yorker. A two-time National Magazine Award finalist, he is the recipient of two John Bartlow Martin Awards for Public Magazine Journalism as well as two Overseas Press Club awards, both since 2009. In addition to Barbarian Days, Finnegan’s books include Crossing the Line: A Year in the Land of Apartheid, which was chosen by The New York Times Book Review as one of the top ten nonfiction books of the year; Cold New World: Growing Up in a Harder Country, which was a finalist for the Helen Bernstein Award for Excellence in Journalism; Dateline Soweto: Travels with Black South African Reporters; and A Complicated War: The Harrowing of Mozambique.

    He lives in New York City with his wife and daughter.

  • Speaking Topics

    Barbarian Days

    William Finnegan's Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize and was one of the most praised nonfiction books of the year. In this talk, Finnegan explores the background and stories behind the book, as well as the pleasures and pitfalls of memoir as a genre. Through his thoughtful and humorous reflections, Finnegan inspires audiences to consider how their own passions and lives lend themselves to storytelling.

    Life at The New Yorker

    For the past three decades, William Finnegan has been a staff writer at The New Yorker and has reported on a host of contemporary global issues, writing primarily about politics, war, poverty, race, U.S. foreign policy, political Islam, and globalization, but also punk rock, the Olympics, and surfing. In this lecture, Finnegan talks about working at The New Yorker, diving into his experiences as a reporter and shedding light on some of the topics he has covered.

  • Video

  • Praise for William Finnegan


    Bill was superb – articulate, easy going, and generous.

    Point Loma Nazarene University, Writer’s Symposium by the Sea

    Praise for Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life


    O, The Oprah Magazine

    Fearless and full of grace.

    Outside Magazine

    With a compelling storyline and masterful prose, Finnegan’s beautiful memoir is sure to resonate.

    The New York Observer

    Finnegan describes, with shimmering detail, his adventures riding waves on five continents. Surfing has taken him places he’d never otherwise have thought to go, but it also buoyed him through a career reporting on the politics of intense scarcity, limitless cruelty, and unimaginable suffering. It’s a book about travel and growing up, and the power of a pastime when it becomes an obsession.

    Men’s Journal

    That’s always Finnegan’s M.O.: examining the ways in which surfing intertwines with anthropology, economics, politics, and, of course, writing. Finnegan is a sober, straightforward author, but the level of detail, emotion, and insight he achieves is unparalleled . . . A must-read for all surfers—not just because of its unblinking prose and subtle wit, but because it’s the only book that properly details what it’s like to cultivate both an award-winning career and a dedicated surfing life.

    Eastern Surf Magazine

    Finnegan’s epic adventure, beautifully told, is much more than the story of a boy and his wave, even if surfing serves as the thumping heartbeat of his life.

    Dallas Morning News

    Finnegan writes so engagingly that you paddle alongside, eager for him to take you to the next wave . . . It is a wet and wild run. He makes surfing seem as foreign and simultaneously as intimate a sport as possible . . . Surfing is the backbone of the book, but Finnegan’s relationships to people, not waves, form its flesh . . . [A] deep blue story of one man’s lifelong enchantment.

    Boston Globe

    An evocative, profound and deeply moving memoir…The proof is in the sentences. Were I given unlimited space to review this book, I would simply reproduce it here, with a quotation mark at the beginning and another at the end. While surfers have a reputation for being inarticulate, there is actually a fair amount of overlap between what makes a good surfer and a good writer. A smooth style, an ability to stay close to the source of the energy, humility before the task, and, once you’re done, not claiming your ride. In other words, making something exceedingly difficult look easy. The gift for writing a clean line is rare, and the gift for riding one even rarer. Finnegan possesses both.

    San Francisco Chronicle

    Gorgeously written and intensely felt . . . With Mr. Finnegan’s bravura memoir, the surfing bookshelf is dramatically enriched. It’s not only a volume for followers of the sport. Non-surfers, too, will be treated to a travelogue head-scratchingly rich in obscure, sharply observed destinations . . . Dare I say that we all need Mr. Finnegan . . . as a role model for a life fully, thrillingly, lived.

    Wall Street Journal

    [A] sweeping, glorious memoir . . . Oh, the rides, they are incandescent…I’d sooner press this book upon on a nonsurfer, in part because nothing I’ve read so accurately describes the feeling of being stoked or the despair of being held under. But also because while it is a book about ‘A Surfing Life’…it’s also about a writer’s life and, even more generally, a quester’s life, more carefully observed and precisely rendered than any I’ve read in a long time.

    Los Angeles Times

    Overflowing with vivid descriptions of waves caught and waves missed, of disappointments and ecstasies and gargantuan curling tubes that encircle riders like cathedrals of pure stained glass…These paragraphs, with their mix of personal remembrance and subcultural taxonomies, tend to be as elegant and pellucid as the breakers they immortalize…This memoir is one you can ride all the way to shore.

    Entertainment Weekly

    Finnegan is an excellent surfer; at some point he became an even better writer. That pairing makes Barbarian Days exceptional in the notoriously foamy genre of surf lit: a hefty, heavyweight tour de force, overbrimming with sublime lyrical passages that Finnegan drops as effortlessly as he executed his signature ‘drop-knee cutback’ in the breaks off Waikiki . . . Reading this guy on the subject of waves and water is like reading Hemingway on bullfighting; William Burroughs on controlled substances; Updike on adultery . . . Finnegan is a virtuoso wordsmith, but the juice propelling this memoir is wrung from the quest that shaped him . . . A piscine, picaresque coming-of-age story, seen through the gloss resin coat of a surfboard.

    Sports Illustrated

    Which is precisely what makes the propulsive precision of Finnegan’s writing so surprising and revelatory . . . Finnegan’s treatment of surfing never feels like performance. Through the sheer intensity of his descriptive powers and the undeniable ways in which surfing has shaped his life, Barbarian Days is an utterly convincing study in the joy of treating seriously an unserious thing . . . As Finnegan demonstrates, surfing, like good writing, is an act of vigilant noticing.

    The New York Review of Books

    Without a doubt, the finest surf book I’ve ever read . . . All this technical mastery and precise description goes hand in hand with an unabashed, infectious earnestness. Finnegan has certainly written a surfing book for surfers, but on a more fundamental level, Barbarian Days offers a cleareyed vision of American boyhood. Like Jon Krakauer’s ‘Into the Wild,’ it is a sympathetic examination of what happens when literary ideas of freedom and purity take hold of a young mind and fling his body out into the far reaches of the world.

    The New York Times Magazine

    Extraordinary . . . [Barbarian Days] is in many ways, and for the first time, a surfer in full. And it is cause for throwing your wet-suit hoods in the air…If the book has a flaw, it lies in the envy helplessly induced in the armchair surf-­traveler by so many lusty affairs with waves that are the supermodels of the surf world. Still, Finnegan considerately shows himself paying the price of admission in a few near drownings, and these are among the most electrifying moments in the book . . . There are too many breathtaking, original things in Barbarian Days to do more than mention here—observations about surfing that have simply never been made before, or certainly never so well.

    The New York Times Book Review

    Barbarian Days gleams with precise, often lyrical recollections of the most memorable waves [Finnegan has] encountered . . . He carefully mines his surfing exploits for broader, hard-won insights on his childhood, his most intense friendships and romances, his political education, his career. He’s always attuned to his surroundings, and his reflections are often tinged with self-effacing wit.

    Chicago Reader

    Vivid and propulsive . . . Finnegan . . . has seen things from the tops of ocean peaks that would disturb most surfers’ dreams for weeks. (I happily include myself among that number) . . . A lyrical and enormously rewarding read . . . Finnegan’s enchantment takes us to some luminous and unsettling places—on both the edge of the ocean, and the frontiers of the surfing life.

    San Diego Union-Tribune

    An engrossing read, part treatise on wave physics, part thrill ride, part cultural study, with a soupçon of near-death events. Even for those who’ve never paddled out, Finnegan’s imagery is as vividly rendered as a film, his explanation of wave mastery a triumph of language. For surfers, the book is The Endless Summer writ smarter and larger, touching down at every iconic break.

    Los Angeles Magazine

    That surfing life is [Finnegan’s], and it’s a remarkably adventurous one sure to induce wanderlust in anyone who follows along, surfer or not . . . Lyrical but not overbaked, exciting but always self-effacing. It captures the moments of joy and terror Finnegan’s lifelong passion has brought him, as well as his occasional ambivalence about the tenacious hold it has on him. It’s easily the best book ever written about surfing. It’s not even close.

    Florida Times-Union

    Fans of [Finnegan’s] writing have been waiting eagerly for his surfing memoir…Well, Barbarian Days is here. And it’s even better than one could have imagined . . . This is Finnegan’s gift. He’s observant and expressive but shows careful restraint in his zeal. He says only what needs to be said, enough to create a vivid picture for the reader while masterfully giving that picture a kind of movement.

    Honolulu Star-Advertiser

    The kind of book that makes you squirm in your seat on the subway, gaze out the window at work, and Google Map the quickest route to the beach. In other words, it is, like Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, a semi-dangerous book, one that persuades young men . . . to trade in their office jobs in order to roam the world, to feel the ocean’s power, and chase the waves.

    The Paris Review Daily

    Terrific . . . Elegantly written and structured, it’s a riveting adventure story, an intellectual autobiography, and a restless, searching meditation on love, friendship and family . . . A writer of rare subtlety and observational gifts, Finnegan explores every aspect of the sport its mechanics and intoxicating thrills, its culture and arcane tribal codes—in a way that should resonate with surfers and non-surfers alike. His descriptions of some of the world’s most powerful and unforgiving waves are hauntingly beautiful . . . Finnegan displays an honesty that is evident throughout the book, parts of which have a searing, unvarnished intensity that reminded me of ‘Stop Time,’ the classic coming-of-age memoir by Frank Conroy.

    Washington Post

    A hefty masterpiece.

    Geoff Dyer, The Guardian

    How many ways can you describe a wave? You’ll never get tired of watching Finnegan do it. A staff writer at The New Yorker, he leads a counterlife as an obsessive surfer, traveling around the world, throwing his vulnerable, merely human body into line after line of waves in search of transient moments of grace . . . It’s an occupation that has never before been described with this tenderness and deftness.

    TIME Magazine, Top 10 Nonfiction Books of 2015
  • Books by William Finnegan

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