I first came across the name William Finnegan in a Google search. I was looking for “surf literature,” a term that seemed contradictory. Most of the serious surf writing I had read up until that point left me disappointed and unfulfilled. The focus always seemed to be about the wrong things: the way surfers talked or self-indulgent descriptions of the rush of a ride. I hadn’t found a voice that truly captured the feelings surfing evoked in me. I was ready to give up and conclude that surfing was simply too personal or difficult to write about.
But then I found Finnegan’s “Playing Doc’s Games.” I printed out the hefty 80-page-plus manuscript, enough to be considered a short novel. I read the whole thing in one sitting. And I read it again the next day. I sent it to all my friends, surfers and non-surfers. I had found the voice I was looking for, a voice that represented surfing in an authentic, compelling, and complicated way.
“Playing Doc’s Games” explores the San Francisco surf scene at Ocean Beach, the small hub of surfers that surf it in the winter, and the central figure Mark Renneker. The frightening and painterly descriptions of being out in big, cold NorCal surf combined with the careful examination of the Ocean Beach surf community alone make it a great read. But more poignantly, the piece is about obsession, identity, and negotiating the balance between surfing and life. “Playing Doc’s Games” originally appeared in The New Yorker spanning two separate issues.
William Finnegan is a staff writer for The New Yorker where he has written about politics, the drug cartels, and war and has reported from South Africa, Central America, Somalia, and the Balkans. He has authored four books and has another on the way–a surf memoir. He currently lives in New York with his family.
Where did you first learn to surf?
First stood up at San Onofre, age ten. Really learned at C Street, Ventura.
What was your favorite surf spot growing up in Los Angeles?
First it was C Street. Later, Rincon. Summers were Secos and Malibu.
Did you ever surf the South Bay? Any memorable sessions come to mind?
A few times. Nothing memorable. South Bay was an epicenter, but I lived in the Valley and we either went north or much farther south.
When did you first become interested in writing?
As a kid. I was a big reader. First I wrote poetry and fiction. I got an MFA in fiction. Then I got interested in literary nonfiction and, after living and teaching in South Africa, political journalism.
Was “Playing Doc’s Games” your first time writing about surfing?
For American readers, it was. I was actually nervous about coming out of the closet as a surfer. I was writing about politics for The New Yorker and I thought I might get taken less seriously by other policy geeks. “Oh, you’re just a dumb surfer, what do you know?” That didn’t happen, at least not that I noticed. I was also worried that the main character of that story, a guy I used to surf with, wouldn’t like the piece, and indeed he didn’t.
In “Playing Doc’s Games,” a theme I was drawn to was the inevitable conflict between surfing and working. Is that still a conflict for you?
Yes. When it gets good, and I’m on deadline, I get pretty frantic. When I moved to New York, in the 80s, I was afraid there would be no waves around here. That turned out to be not the case at all. But you have to keep an eye on it, and figure out where to go, and the windows of good waves don’t usually stay open long. In winter, when a lot of the best swells hit, the days themselves aren’t long. So you need a flexible schedule, understanding employers, a forgiving family. Same as anywhere, really, if you’re still chasing it as a grownup. In my little crew in Manhattan, everybody’s juggling jobs, family and waves. Surf trips are a different story. Between projects, I try to go to Mexico, Hawaii, Fiji, Indonesia, Europe, Puerto Rico—whatever I can swing. I sometimes go on a swell, but that takes another level of flexibility.
Have you gone back and surfed Ocean Beach? When was the last time?
Last time was probably 2010. Whenever I’m in San Francisco and it’s halfway decent, I try to surf. There are a lot more people surfing OB than when I lived there, but still plenty of waves. The paddle out never gets any easier. Dead Man’s is crowded now.
Why do you think Hollywood struggles with the topic of surfing?
Terminal corniness seems to infect every project. I don’t know why. The technical challenges are significant—how to shoot actors out in the water in a way that doesn’t look disastrously, distractingly fake. Just getting the continuity right so that you don’t have characters on boards talking to each other on completely different days, in completely different conditions, seems to be beyond the capacities of most productions. Then there is the quality of the scripts—poorly drawn characters, plots with nothing really at stake, hokey climaxes and confrontations—and I don’t mean hokey just for surfers but for anyone condemned to watch. It should be possible to thread a good film through the world of surfing, but the focus needs to be on truly interesting characters in a really solid story with surfing as a credible part of the plot. Did you ever see “Downhill Racer?” It was a moody, excellent 1969 movie about ski racing. It was a fairly simple story but with wonderful acting, writing, camerawork. Robert Redford, Gene Hackman. The screenwriter was James Salter who is just about my favorite living American writer. I know he spent a long time researching that script. The director was Michael Ritchie who worked in a lot of genres and made some other terrific films like “The Candidate.” If a bunch of comparably talented people were committed to making a serious picture set in the world of surfing, who knows, something great could come of it. But every Hollywood movie with a surfing theme that I’ve seen has started with a silly script and then gone, as it were, downhill from there.