The following is a question-and-answer exchange with best-selling author Michael Finkel, whose books “True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa” and “The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit” are among the favorites on Sealy News’ editor April Towery’s bookshelf.
Editor’s note: In case you missed it, “Stranger” is the story of Christopher Knight, who lived alone in the woods of Maine for almost three decades, surviving on food and clothing he stole from cabins in the area. “True Story” is about Finkel’s fall from grace as a journalist who lost his job and later had his identity stolen by a man who killed his family and fled the country. “True Story” was made into a movie starring Jonah Hill as Finkel. Reviews of both books are posted on The Sealy News website.
Question: What drew you to Christopher Knight's story? Would you have told it even if he hadn't responded to your letters and granted you interviews?
Answer: Knight's story is like catnip for journalists – adventure, true crime, mystery, amazing solitude, an intriguing, intelligent person in the middle of it. Also, I've long been intrigued with both the idea of solitude and, all my journalism career, by people who march to their very own drummer.
But if Knight had not responded to me, I would not have written anything. I needed to speak with Knight himself.
Q: Were you surprised when you heard back from Knight?
A: Good question. I've been asked this before and I usually just say, yes – which is true. But the deeper answer is that I felt this odd connection with him, and while I was surprised – shocked, even – to see his letter in my mailbox, there was, in some cosmic way, a strange filament of connection between us. If I'd have thought there was no chance he'd respond, I never would have even bothered to write a letter.
Q: I was struck by how Knight does not seem to have that innate human characteristic of wanting others to like him. Did this surprise you?
A: I found this characteristic to be quite refreshing! He does have an ego, but it's not the sort that worries what others think about him. I wish I had more of that – I wish many of us had more of that. A little dash of Knight in all the rest of us might make the world a better, less self-centered, less me-first place.
Q: Why do you include personal details in your books? It seems as though that would open you up to more scrutiny in your personal life, but it seems to endear you to readers. Doing so in "True Story" was an obvious choice since you are actually part of the story, but why do so in "Stranger"?
A: So much of writing is done by "feel" and there are so many ways to write each piece. The stories I chose always feel important – essential – to me, and I often write about very difficult or unusual people, and sometimes by introducing myself a bit (I sure hope not too much!) I feel like I can be a bit of a bridge between the reader and the subject. I also think if you know a bit about the writer, the book feels more personal, more cozy, and less cold and report-like.
Q: What are some of your favorite books?
A: This is never an easy question to answer. While I have always loved to read, since I was very young, the first time I read "The Catcher in the Rye," J.D. Salinger's magnum opus, I was completely smitten – something about the voice of Holden Caulfield, the smoothness of the prose, the feeling that the author was speaking directly to me, the fact that I was so young (maybe 17 years old) just left a deep impression on me. I've since read hundreds of books that have utterly gripped me, and many dozens (like "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy) that I've read in a single, entranced sitting, but like a first true love, the immensity of the emotions stirred by "Catcher" have never been surmounted.
Q: Have you received any feedback from Knight or his family on the book?
A: I sent the book to Chris well before it was published, and I heard back ... nothing. Not a huge surprise. Though before I wrote the book, I did write a magazine story about Chris (for GQ Magazine) and we spoke after the article came out. He'd read the article, and while there were parts he liked, and parts he didn't like, he said that overall he respected the work. The book has a similar tone as the magazine article, and I hope – but I can't be sure – that Knight also respects the book. I tried my very hardest to write the story as accurately as possible, and to say precisely what I felt and believed about Chris.
Q: How has the success of "True Story" and the movie changed your life?
A: Hard to say, precisely. In a way, I suppose, everything changes your life in some fashion or another. The movie and the whole Longo incident is indeed such a strange and bizarre and disturbing part of my life that, perhaps, I haven't fully processed it yet, even after so many years. There's no timeline for such outlier things.
Q: What's your writing process like? For example, do you set aside a few hours each day for writing?
A: I have no set routine – or, rather, my routine is to not have routine. My work hours really depend on what stage of a project I'm in (researching, writing, editing, head-pounding-on-keyboard-in-frustration – those are pretty much the classic four stages of non-fiction writing). When I'm actually in full-on writing mode, I prefer to write all night, but that's just me. I'm a natural night-owl. Everyone I believe needs to find what works for them.