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William Finnegan, M.F.A. ’78, New York City, won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in the biography/autobiography category for his memoir, “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life.” The New York Times best-seller chronicles Finnegan’s “youthful obsession” during his formative years as he traveled the world looking for the next big wave.
In the mid-1970s, Finnegan found himself studying creative writing in landlocked Montana, having followed a surfing buddy and fellow writer enrolled at UM.
“After college, I had a job in California – I was a brakeman on the Southern Pacific Railroad – but the work was seasonal, mainly hauling produce, so I had winters off,” Finnegan writes. “I was a peripatetic young fiction writer. I’d lived in Norway and London. One year I came to Missoula to visit my friend, Bryan Di Salvatore, who was also a surfer from California. He was in the M.F.A. program at UM. The program sounded like just what I needed – peers, feedback, structure – so I copied Bryan and applied.”
Finnegan’s whim proved serendipitous, and not only because he learned how to deal with cold weather. Life in Montana provided a new perspective he hadn’t experienced while growing up surfing along the shores of California and Hawaii.
“It opened up my world in various ways. My writing got less obscurantist, I think, after three winters of people telling me it was too obscure,” Finnegan writes. “My reading horizons expanded, partly from reading everything (longtime Missoula author) Max Crawford told me to. … I hope I got slightly less coastal-provincial.”
A staff writer for The New Yorker since 1987, Finnegan has spent the majority of his career writing in-depth features on conflicts at home and abroad, including apartheid in South Africa and terrorism in the U.S. His publisher first conceived the idea for a seemingly less consequential surfing memoir in the early 1990s, but it remained on the back burner while he reported on more critical affairs.
“I found it hard to justify spending months and years writing about my personal life, my little pointless obsession, when the world seemed to produce a constant stream of crises and horrors that demanded, I thought, to be written about,” he writes. “So I repeatedly put away the memoir in favor of more journalistic projects. But I actually loved writing it, which is unusual for me, and in the end got serious about getting it right. It took about 22 years to finish.”
These days, Finnegan typically finds himself a long way from both Montana and prime surfing territory. But he still rides the colder waves of the North Atlantic while home in New York, and he even tried his hand at river surfing on the Clark Fork during a recent visit to Missoula.
“I tried river surfing a few times, just at Brennan’s Wave, in town,” Finnegan writes. “It’s hard! I really liked the local crew. They were very encouraging. In the ocean, we’re not usually that nice.”
Though he visited twice this year, Finnegan doesn’t make it back to the Garden City as often as he’d like. But despite the distance between them now, the personal connections Finnegan made during his time in Missoula left a lasting impression on him.
“Some of the friends I made 40 years ago in Montana are still good friends,” he writes.
In fact, the surfer sitting next to Finnegan on the cover of his Pulitzer winner is none other than Di Salvatore, that good friend who first brought him to Montana all those years ago.
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