Interviewed by Charles Morgan III
Michael Finkel is the author of True Story, and his latest book, The Stranger in the Woods, currently sits at #11 on the New York Times nonfiction bestsellers chart. He is married to Jill Barker, the sister of former Destin mayor Craig Barker.
You are a curious man—not in the sense that you have strange traits or tendencies, but in that you have an obvious insatiable curiosity about lots of things, particularly people. I think curiosity is something that great journalists have in common. Am I right?
I’ve been lucky my whole life. If someone asked, “What job do you want?” I’d say that I would want everybody’s job for one month. I’d like to immerse myself in others’ lives and then move on. This job is natural to me. Whether I’m interviewing a Nobel Prize winning scientist or a criminal in jail, I approach them exactly the same. There is nothing preconceived on my part.
You work also has an underlying sense of hopefulness. Are you an upbeat kind of guy?
In spite of how easy it is to be depressed, I remain optimistic. You have to get away from this constant barrage of negative stuff in media. I have traveled all over the world, and the percentage of bad people in this world is very low. Almost everyone I meet is kind. It doesn’t matter what nationality or religion—the people I meet are good people. I know that for a fact. Ninety-nine percent of the people in this world are kind, not scary.
How do you describe your occupation? As a writer?
Writer sounds too snobby. I like to think of myself as a journalist.
Who are your favorite novelists?
Cormac McCarthy, Ernest Hemingway, and Alice Monro for her short stories. Hemingway’s simple style shows that the sum is greater than the parts.
Who are your favorite Journalists?
John McPhee, Joan Didion and Hunter Thompson.
What sort of discipline do you employ when working on a project?
I often write from 9 to 5—9 p.m. to 5 a.m. We’ve got three kids, and sometimes it’s easier to work at night. I’ve been in the zone and worked for 25 to 30 hours. I’ve also gone for three hours without writing a word. But sometimes you get more done thinking and not writing at all.
True Story is a classic story of one door closing and another opening. You left the New York Times and fell into a bizarre story that turned out to be a bestseller and a feature film. Who came up with the title True Story—it’s a great title—and what was it like seeing your story on screen?
I came up with the title. It was a little surreal to see Jonah Hill playing me in my story. I saw the film three or four times. It was a bizarre experience.
What attracted you to the story of Christopher Knight, the Stranger in the Woods?
I saw a five-paragraph article online when he was arrested. Each paragraph increased my interest. Twenty-seven years in the woods—no fire, no food, sort of a crazy nut. The last paragraph mentioned that he stole over 1,000 books. That’s when my journalistic senses went in overdrive.
I’ve read the book, and it’s fascinating. In addition to his story, you were required to do a lot of research about the history of “hermits.”
I spent three years on a 191-page book. It’s a great story about an intelligent man in the woods, without human contact, for 27 years. In an age of “fake news,” this is a story that is 100 percent true. Unbelievable, yet absolutely true. I even hired a staff of fact checkers. The difference in a decent book and a good book is that a good book will leave you questioning your own life. I hope it’s a good book.
You’ve recently relocated from Bozeman, Montana to Paris. It’s about time to visit the in-laws in Destin.
I love Destin. I’m happy that my kids, through Jill’s family, have experienced some of the southern ethos. Respect for elders, opening doors for people…I’m glad to be a part of a southern family.