Discipline: Literature – nonfiction

William Finnegan

Discipline: Literature – nonfiction
Region: New York, NY
MacDowell Fellowships: 1991, 1996, 2007, 2023

William Finnegan is a staff writer at The New Yorker and author of works of international journalism. He has specially addressed issues of racism and conflict in Southern Africa and politics in Mexico and South America, as well as poverty among youth in the United States, and is well known for his writing on surfing. He has twice received the John Bartlow Martin Award for Public Interest Magazine Journalism, given by Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, in 1994 and 1996.

He wrote Crossing the Line: A Year in the Land of Apartheid, which was published in 1986 and was selected by the New York Times Book Review as one of the ten best nonfiction books of the year. Finnegan's experience in South Africa transformed him from a novelist to a political journalist. His first short piece, about his experience living in Sri Lanka, was published in Mother Jones in 1979. Finnegan began contributing to The New Yorker in 1984 and has been a staff writer there since 1987. He has also contributed to Harper's and The New York Review of Books, among other publications.

Finnegan contributed a two-part series for the New Yorker in 1992 entitled "Playing Doc's Games." A widely experienced surfer himself, Finnegan writes about the local surf scene in San Francisco revolving around Ocean Beach, Dr. Mark Renneker ("Doc"), as well as his own personal experiences. A remarkable piece of writing, and one he worked on in residence at MacDowell, it is considered to be one of the best pieces of journalism on surfing. Finnegan's autobiographical work Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography.

In 1988 he published Dateline Soweto: Travels with Black South African Reporters. A Complicated War: The Harrowing of Mozambique, published in 1992, grew out of a series of correspondences about the war-torn nation. 1998 saw the publication of Finnegan's Cold New World: Growing Up in a Harder Country, which deals with the bleak lives of American teenagers in spite of the United States’ economic affluence. It was a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism in 1999. In the July 20th, 2009 issue of The New Yorker, Finnegan profiled Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, AZ and his role in the conflict over immigration in that border state. In the May 31st, 2010 issue, he reported from Michoacan state in Mexico on the rise of the "La Familia" drug gang and the increasing social and political instability in Mexico. His "Talk of the Town" comment on "Borderlines," which addresses the U.S. political stalemate over immigration reform, appeared in the magazine's issue for July 26, 2010.

While at MacDowell in 2023, he worked on a memoir about the years he spent as a freight brakeman on the Southern Pacific railroad in California. The book will also make an environmental and political argument for an expanded, revamped, and electrified rail transportation network in the U.S.



William Finnegan worked in the Calderwood studio.

In the winter of 1998, motivated by his passion for reading, Stanford Calderwood donated funds for a new writers’ studio. Burr-McCallum Architects of Williamstown, MA, provided the award-winning design in 1999; and the construction of the handsome studio was completed in time for its first artist to arrive early in 2000. With a series of double-hung casement…

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