William Finnegan is a political journalist who has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1987. The stories he seeks out are tough and often tangled up in war, poverty, and injustice. He has reported from all over the world, including South Africa, Mozambique, Somalia, Sudan, the Balkans, and South America. For his daring, searing, and deeply human writing he has been honored with countless awards, including two John Bartlow Martin Awards for Public Interest Magazine Journalism, given by Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He has twice been a finalist for a National Magazine Award.
Finnegan is the author of four books, Crossing the Line: A Year in the Land of Apartheid (1986), which was selected as one of the ten best nonfiction books of the year by The New York Times Book Review; Dateline Soweto: Travels with Black South African Reporters (1988); A Complicated War: The Harrowing of Mozambique (1992); and Cold New World: Growing Up in a Harder Country (1998), which was a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism in 1999. He is currently writing extensively about Mexico, with recent articles in The New Yorker including “Letter from Mexico: Silver or Lead,” (May 31, 2010), and “Letter from Tijuana: In the Name of the Law,” (October 18, 2010).
Besides finding and writing the best stories, Finnegan’s lifelong obsession is finding and riding the best waves. In 1992 he published “Playing Doc’s Games,” a two-part feature for The New Yorker that is widely considered one of the best articles ever written about surfing.
What kind of stuff did you write when you were younger?
Poetry. Ornate, impenetrable stuff. If I dug it out now, I doubt I’d understand it. That was while I was in high school and college. I dropped out of college a couple of times. I started writing fiction when I was eighteen, nineteen, in Hawaii, where I was working in a bookstore, living in a car, not in school. I eventually wrote three novels, none of them published. A community newspaper published a couple of my poems, but I was very shy about my work. My first published nonfiction was an essay about Werner Herzog’s films, for a college newspaper. By then I was in graduate school.
So I was slowly following an arc: from the most obscure, least commercial genre—poetry— through fiction, some of it also pretty inaccessible, toward nonfiction, journalism, news. I never actually got to news. The closest I got was a book, written in my 30s, about a small group of deadline reporters I really admired in Johannesburg.
Why were you writing “impenetrable” stuff back then?
I was infatuated, as a teenager, with writers who were difficult. My hero was James Joyce, whose work got impossibly dense before he was through. I loved Eliot, Pound, Stevens, Hart Crane, Rimbaud, the surrealists, experimental poets and fiction writers. I aspired to that kind of erudition and mystery.
I now have kind of a jaded take on that early ambition. I think I was determined to be obscure at least partly to avoid direct judgments on my work. If people couldn’t understand it, they couldn’t tell me it was lousy. I did a M.F.A. in creative writing at the University of Montana, and the workshops there were a good comeuppance. I had to deal with other writers saying, “I don’t get it. What is this about?” I was horribly arrogant. I used to say, “Well, you don’t get it because you’re stupid.” Still, their questions got to me. I had to start reckoning with readers. It was the beginning of the end of my long, absurdly romantic adolescence as a writer.
What did your parents think about you wanting to be a writer?
They were good about it. They were both readers. My father had been a reporter. When I was born, he was a news writer at CBS. He later went into the film and TV business, and ultimately became a producer. But I think he always half-wished he was a writer. A lot of his friends were screenwriters. But he thought I should be writing for publication—sports, obits for the hometown paper, anything really—anything but these grandiose poems that I barely showed to friends.
Did you ever consider other professions besides writing?
No. I didn’t think of writing as a profession, though—I wasn’t that practical. Literature was just my lodestar, my one deep, vaulting interest. I worked jobs to support my writing habit, and didn’t think much beyond that, at least not until my late twenties.
I did have a couple of jobs I loved. I was a railroad brakeman in California for a few years after college. That was a dream job. The pay was great. I worked the coast route, between San Francisco and L.A., mainly agricultural freight. People in that world used to say, “The big iron gets in your blood,” and I sometimes thought I’d never leave. The tracks tend to run through an old rural and industrial California that few people ever see, and railroaders speak a strange, rich, American language that I loved. I filled a lot of notebooks with railroad language and lore. The seasonal rhythm of the job suited me. I had no seniority, so I’d get furloughed in the winters, when traffic slowed down, which gave me half the year to write. I’d go hole up somewhere—Mexico, Europe, Montana. My third novel was set on the railroad.
Where are all those novels now?
[Laughs] In a drawer somewhere, I think. I haven’t looked at them in ages. The railroad novel was the only one I sent to publishers. I got some nice rejections. A couple of editors wanted me to open up the language—to help non-railroaders understand what was going on. I wasn’t ready to do that.
You didn’t submit your first two novels at all?
Was the act of writing itself enough to satisfy and sustain you?
I had things I needed to write. A lot of my fiction was autobiographical. I was trying, sometimes desperately, to make sense of my own experience. My first novel was driven mainly by youthful romantic heartbreak. I hid out in a town on the west coast of Norway and wrote round-the-clock for months. I wrote in longhand, in composition books, and when I was finished I caught a boat to England, where I borrowed a little manual typewriter and typed it up. That manuscript came to about 1,100 double-spaced pages. I showed it to a couple of friends. I was twenty years old. I didn’t know anything about the publishing industry. Before I did that M.F.A., I didn’t know what an agent was.
My second novel was more artful, I guess, less terminally self-involved, but probably no more publishable. I don’t know who I thought my readers were. I assumed I was writing for posterity. As far as I was concerned, my peers were the major writers, living or dead, I was reading. My stuff would take its place on the shelf beside their books, somehow. The details of publishing either intimidated me or didn’t interest me. I just worked my ass off, writing, and felt like I’d done my part.
You spent a great deal of time traveling after college. Tell me about that.
It started before college. I grew up in Los Angeles, which came to seem like a toxic place, a place that required escaping. So my friends and I mythologized the Road, and we all lit out early. I had hitchhiked through fifteen or twenty countries before I turned eighteen. I seemed to be always going coast to coast for some urgent reason, always on no money at all. And it continued after college. I probably spent most of my twenties overseas. When I was twenty-five, I took my railroad savings and left for the South Pacific. I was gone nearly four years.
That trip was a last blast, the apotheosis of my restlessness. My other obsession, besides literature, was—and still is—surfing. So I set off with a friend, also a writer and surfer, and we bummed around the South Seas, on yachts and freighters and local fishing boats, camping on uninhabited islands, looking for waves. This was in the late 70s. Western Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, the New Hebrides. There weren’t many other surfers in those places in those days. We found some great empty waves. When we weren’t surfing or bushwhacking, I was working on my railroad novel. We ran out of money at some point and made our way to Australia, where we got jobs on the Queensland coast. My buddy cooked in a Mexican restaurant. I bartended, washed dishes, dug ditches. We were working illegally, but the pay was good. The surf was good. I got a lot of writing done.
From there we pushed on to Southeast Asia—Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Sri Lanka. First we were living on our savings from Australia, and then by various scams. My friend finally called it an era, as he put it, and went back to the U.S. I kept going, with a girlfriend, living very cheaply. In Sri Lanka we rented a house, near a good wave, for twenty-nine dollars a month. No electricity or running water. I wrote and surfed. I don’t suppose I could do it now—I have a family, a kid, a very full life here in New York—but I think it’s still true that, if you need time and cheap digs to get your writing done, there are plenty of bolt-holes in poor countries where you can live for a long time on very little money.
From Sri Lanka I went to South Africa, where I got a job teaching high school in Cape Town. I wasn’t able to write while teaching. The job was too demanding. I didn’t know what I was doing as a teacher, and my students deserved my best effort. I planned to finish my railroad novel that year but just couldn’t do it. When the school year ended, I stayed on in Cape Town, living on savings from teaching, and finally finished the novel.
That was when I decided it was time to start making a living from writing. No more job jobs. I traveled north through Africa, made my way to Europe. By the time I got to the U.S., I was broke again. Also really sick of being a foreigner. So I went back to live with my parents in L.A. I was twenty-nine. I turned thirty there. That was some pretty humble pie. But I stuck to my little private vow. I started making money from writing, got out of L.A., and, except for a little college teaching and public speaking, have been writing for a living since.
What was the first writing you got paid for?
Articles for surf magazines and travel magazines, written in Australia, Indonesia, Thailand. I was really flying blind with those. I wrote a couple of things for a U.S. Army magazine called Off Duty—its Asia office was in Hong Kong—that I’ve still never seen a copy of. This was before email, of course. I’d get an editor’s name and address from somewhere and write a query letter, or just send a finished piece. My return address would be Poste Restante in some town I expected to reach in a few months’ time. But it worked out surprisingly often. I’d go to the post office in Penang, Malaysia, and there waiting for me would be an assignment, or a check for a few hundred dollars, which I could live on for months. I didn’t take the writing seriously, though. It wasn’t, you know, Literature.
What made you turn from fiction to nonfiction?
My experience in South Africa. It was 1980-81, the bad old days of apartheid. I was teaching in a black high school. Not long after I got there, our students went out on strike, protesting apartheid in education. The boycott spread to other schools, across the country, and turned into a major confrontation with the state. A lot of people got hurt or killed. Thousands of activists were detained without charges, including a number of my students and colleagues. So I had a ringside seat for this very intense political drama, which I eventually felt deeply involved in. Things got quite violent in Cape Town. And it ended badly, I thought, that year. The protests ended, the repression seemed to work, the regime seemed to win. But of course it was just one chapter in the very long saga of the South African freedom struggle.
But the experience completely changed my own view of what was worth doing. I got interested in political journalism, and I lost interest in the kind of high-flown American fiction—the rhapsodic Americana—that I was still writing then. It didn’t happen overnight, in some blinding flash of light on the Damascus Road, but I did start writing political essays in South Africa, and sending them off to American magazines, and I’ve pretty much been a political journalist since.
Up until the point of your “conversion” in South Africa, you seem to have had a need to write for the sake of writing, but after you switched to nonfiction, did you start writing more because you felt there was a specific story that needed to be told?
Yes. It wasn’t that, while I was writing fiction, I didn’t feel compelled to tell stories about what I saw and went through. I did. That railroad novel, for instance, was driven largely by my fascination with the world I was living in, with what it all looked and felt and smelled like, the characters in it, and how to put all that into a narrative. But it’s different when you’re writing about actual people with real, urgent problems—about hideous injustice and conflict that’s happening right now. I got less concerned with finding the most original, unforgettable language in which to render certain thoughts and textures, and more concerned with simply getting things right, with getting certain stories out into the world. And publication was no longer an afterthought—it was the point.
So, did your attitude towards what you write change when you shifted toward nonfiction?
Yes. The characters in my novels became as real to me, when I was really into the work, as anyone I saw each day. More so, even—they filled my brain 24/7. But they were, of course, inventions. Writing about real people brings with it responsibilities and consequences that fiction—especially unpublished fiction!—never entailed.
How did you go about getting your first book published?
I wrote an article about my experience teaching in South Africa. It was probably 6,000 words, but I felt like I had barely scratched the surface of the story, which led me to propose a book. By then I had an agent, but she wasn’t enthusiastic, and publishers weren’t enthusiastic. I think twenty publishers turned down the proposal. A lot of editors said no one would buy a book about South Africa. People just weren’t interested in the subject. That was 1983. South Africa wasn’t in the headlines.
I finally got a contract, with a $10,000 advance. But before I finished the book, which is called Crossing the Line, South Africa was back in the headlines, and suddenly my publisher was eager to have the manuscript. It was 1985-86, and the low-intensity civil war that had been going on all along in South Africa was flaring up again. So American readers were presumably more interested in the subject. And the book did get a gratifying amount of attention when it came out, in 1986.
What was writing that first book like?
I wrote it in San Francisco, after escaping the ignominy of that L.A. patch. I was freelancing for magazines, which I found hard to stop—it paid the rent, and there was the satisfaction of getting stories out there relatively fast—but eventually realized that I had to concentrate on the book and nothing else. So I worked for a year straight on it. I took one day off. It got really obsessive. I ended up with a big manuscript—maybe 900 pages. A friend I hadn’t seen in a while came by and asked, “What have you been up to?” I pointed to this very tall stack of paper, a copy of what I’d just sent off to the publisher, and said, “That’s what I’ve been up to. Open it anywhere and read a few words, and I bet I can recite from there.” So she tested me, and that’s when I discovered I knew the whole book by heart.
When you were working this hard on the first book, did you shut all other work out?
I’d sold my first piece to The New Yorker, a short dispatch from Nicaragua, in 1984, and then got an assignment from them to do a long piece about a guy I was surfing with in San Francisco, a doctor who was also a pioneering big-wave rider. So, while I was writing Crossing the Line, I was surfing and, in this serendipitous way, also reporting. After I turned in the book, I went to work full-time on the surfing piece. But it was a bitch to finish, for various convoluted reasons. I moved to New York and ended up writing this huge, two-part, 39,000-word piece about San Francisco, surfing, and this big-wave doctor. It took me seven years to finish.
Well, I published three books and did a lot of other stuff during those years. For me, the subject, surfing, just didn’t have the urgency that some of the other things I was writing about at that point did—apartheid, the wars in Mozambique, Nicaragua, El Salvador. Those were things that had to be written about right now. Surfing could wait, I thought. Plus, I was conflicted about the piece itself—what it was going to say about this doctor friend of mine, and about me. So I worked on it only in fits and starts.
When your first book came out, was that a breakthrough for you?
It was, although I was too busy at the time to appreciate it. I had gone back to South Africa for The New Yorker, to write a piece about black newspaper reporters at a white liberal paper in Johannesburg. So I was actually down there, submerged in this other story, when my book came out. And when I turned in that piece, the magazine offered me a staff job. So my freelancing days were ending right when that book would probably have helped me get more freelancing jobs.
What were your work habits like before, and what are they like now?
I used to have much better habits! I used to get down to work, writing, first thing in the morning—unless the surf was good—and try to write myself out by the end of the day. And it was such a great feeling to finish, maybe sometime in the afternoon, leaving something in the tank, knowing where I would pick up the next day, but having done a decent day’s work. I’d feel so free. I rarely have that feeling these days. I’ll still have a good writing day now and then, but there are always other projects, other deadlines waiting. I seem to have so many more things going on now than I did in my fiction-writing days. It’s just middle age, parenthood, the whole web of obligations, associations, and demands on your time that accumulate with time.
I do still manage to make time to surf. I’ve lived a few places, most recently San Francisco, where I could see the surf from my desk, so that I could really keep my eye on it and time my surf sessions to catch the best conditions. But writing and surfing can complement each other. Surfing is physically tiring, so, after a session, especially if the water’s cold, I’m usually really calm, not antsy—able to sit at my desk for long stretches without jumping up. Also, being in the water is a good time to figure out writing problems, or to let them figure themselves out while I’m consciously paying attention to the waves.
It’s tricky, living in Manhattan, because it takes a while to get from my desk to the water, and conditions can change while I’m scrambling to get out there. Internet surf cams and detailed spot-by-spot forecasts have taken some of the guesswork out of it. But it’s still easy to get skunked.
Where do you surf in New York?
The south shore of Long Island, anywhere from the Rockaways out to Montauk, when the winds are north. When the winds are west, it’s the north end of the Jersey Shore. I have a little crew on the West Side here, basically four of us; we try to keep an eye on the forecasts and the cams, and make runs together. The waves around here are best in winter, so you need a good wetsuit. Spring can also be good. And hurricane swells in the fall. The summer’s small and crummy, generally. Today it looks like it might get good in Jersey, when the wind shifts and the tide drops. In fact, we might be missing waves as we speak.
One of the guys in the group emailed this morning, “Jersey today!” I had to write, “I’m busy.”
Ah, look [points to a monitor live-filming the surf at a New Jersey beach], it’s only three-four feet, still kind of fat, wind still southwest. Not that great.
You have reported from a lot of dangerous places. Have you always been brave?
I wouldn’t describe myself that way. I know journalists, particularly photographers, who cover wars and other dangerous beats with incredible physical courage. I really haven’t done much reporting that was all that scary. A lot of places sound scarier, I think, from a distance than they turn out to be when you get there. News naturally concentrates on violence, so places where there’s a war, or some kind of conflict, happening become, for people far away, watching the news, nothing but the conflict. All the space around it, the space in which people actually live, collapses into the bloodshed, into the most dramatic aspects of the story. I guess I got some sense of that conflation effect during my travels when I was young, which made me less reluctant to head to conflict zones later, when I became a foreign correspondent.
A few places I’ve worked were almost as bad as advertised: Somalia in the mid ‘90s. Sudan in the late ‘90s. Those were nerve-wracking. And, of course, terrible things do happen to journalists all the time. I don’t mean to minimize the risks of war reporting. I covered an election in El Salvador during which four journalists were killed in separate incidents on Election Day. I was with one of them, a young Dutch photographer, when he was pronounced dead.
But, as a rule, the risks are greater for local reporters than they are for foreigners. That’s certainly true in Mexico, where I’ve been working lately. And, again, speaking strictly from my own experience, the dangers generally look greater from a distance than they do from the place itself. I remember, before I went to Mozambique in the late ‘80’s, I heard a lot of stories about how impossible it was to report there. The war was everywhere. Travel was impossible. But it wasn’t. I spent two months in Mozambique, saw a lot of the country, and had maybe ten scary minutes the whole time I was there.
What happened in those ten scary minutes?
We were just on a bad road at the wrong hour of the day. The road turned to sand, and we were having trouble getting up a hill. We were in rebel territory, and the lady I was with, a government official who was high on the enemy’s target list, and who really knew what she was doing, handed me a pistol and told me to release the safety, to get ready. I was not ready. But I knew it was an ambush spot. So there were a few bad minutes. Of course, nothing happened. We were both pretty giddy afterward, and had a few drinks to celebrate when we got to town that night.
But the lack of fear must have to do with the way you are as a person, how you approach a given situation.
If I had more imagination and could picture all the terrible outcomes that might be awaiting, I guess I might not do some of the reporting I do. But I have this dull-witted faith that things will probably be OK. I have a lot of faith in my own dumb luck.
Do you have any advice for young people who want to do similar work?
It’s there to be done. The space available in American magazines and newspapers has shrunk since I started doing this, certainly for long-form nonfiction on subjects that aren’t already in the news, or somehow front and center in the American conversation. But I think there’s still a big, reliable appetite among readers for new stories, and the stories are always out there. They can be hard to see or find from, for instance, New York, if we’re talking about overseas stories, or even American stories that don’t surface in the mass media. But if you get out, travel around, dig hard, get people to talk to you, and keep your eyes and ears open, there are lots of great stories waiting to be told.
You wrote a profile on Barack Obama in 2004. It seems like you accomplished the reportorial dream: to be first on the spot for a hot story before it’s hot.
I got lucky. A friend told me about him. I had never heard of him. I went to Chicago and hung out with him. This was a few months before he gave a speech at the Democratic Convention that put him on everybody’s radar, so there were no other out-of-town reporters around yet. He was just a semi-obscure Senate candidate. But he was great company, great copy, and an incredibly impressive person. I had politically savvy, Washington-experienced people in Chicago say to me, “This guy is going to be the first black president.” But I didn’t put that line in the piece. I thought it would be bad luck, that it was way premature, and might jinx him.
He and I had some funny things in common. He grew up mostly in Honolulu and I grew up partly there. He went to the top local private school, Punahou, so I kidded him about being a Punahou punk. I went to a public junior high, kind of a tough school, Kaimuki Intermediate, where we thought Punahou kids were all rich preppies. Obama refused to believe I went to the school I went to. He didn’t think you could get from Kaimuki Intermediate to The New Yorker.
But it seems you did.
Yeah, by a roundabout route.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photo courtesy of the artist