Exit Interview: Michael Finkel
At first, Exit Interview felt guilty for grilling Penn grad Michael Finkel, who was fired from the New York Times for blending the stories of several people he interviewed into one. His new book, True Story , details his fall from grace and his odd luck thereafter in finding a killer who had stolen the identity of a Times reporter – Michael Finkel. But as this turned into a therapy session and our sympathy snuck in, we remembered the 36-year-old’s book deal and Vanity Fair excerpt, valued at a combined half a mil. And the movie rights Brad Pitt has optioned. Then we reviewed Exit Interview’s bank account. Bombs away.
Exit Interview: Are you calling from the janitor’s closet in Montana that doubles as your office?
Michael Finkel: Unfortunately, no. I don’t keep a telephone line in there. It’s a janitor’s closet/-sensory deprivation chamber. It doesn’t even have a window to the outside world.
EI: Is that some sort of self – imposed penance?
MF: When you have to write, suddenly, cleaning your toilet seems more interesting. I’ve eliminated all possible distractions so I have no choice but to write.
EI: Jeffrey Toobin expressed what seems to be a common theme about your book, and by extension, you: “I wanted to hate Michael Finkel’s book, but instead, I loved it.” Why should the cynics out there let go of their hate?
MF: First of all, it’s a startling story. I’ve never had richer, odder, more confounding material to deal with in my life. So if you start with the first sentence and like it, read the second one, and as soon as you don’t like it, stop reading it. I guess if you hate the book, send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. I make 10 percent of the cover price, and I’ll send you a refund for $2.49.
EI: Have you been confronted by journalists who say you’ve contributed to the public’s mistrust of our profession?
MF: After I was fired by the Times , they did a thorough reinvestigation of all my articles, as well as other magazines I’ve written for, and I think the sum total found was one spelling mistake and one slight numerical error. A few journalists are “one strike and you’re out,” and I don’t blame them. I’m spoiled goods from now to eternity, and if that’s the way they think, I accept that. But most journalists have been forgiving.
EI: You once said, “It’s better to regret the things you’ve done than to regret the things you haven’t done.” Still believe that?
MF: That was one of the fortune-cookie mantras of my youth. Yes, I still agree. Now that old age has beset me, I might add, “There are exceptions that prove the rule.”
EI: Do you fear that if a poll was conducted, most Americans would support government-sponsored monitoring of all of Michael Finkel’s work?
MF: I certainly expect greater scrutiny. As odd as this sounds, because my work is going to be more carefully fact-checked, you can guarantee it will be clean and true. I can’t say the same for any other journalist. In a perfect world, there would be 10 journalists chosen at random to be monitored.
EI: I’ve read magazine stories that I’ve questioned.
MF: I don’t want to comment on that. I don’t want to make an “everybody does it” excuse. I really messed up. I lied to my editors. I have no suspicions of any other journalists. That said, if there was a scientific method, I just wonder what would happen.
EI: Were you a journalist at Penn?
MF: Like all writers, I concentrated in finance at Wharton. Finance is one of the things I don’t regret not having done. When I graduated in 1990, I bicycled across the United States of America, 5,000 miles, and I got to sit on the seat of my bike and think. I had written for the Daily Pennsylvanian and enjoyed it. I realized I wanted to take a stab at journalism.
EI: Stephen Glass wasn’t your editor at the DP , was he?
MF: Ah, no. We had no overlap.
EI: How did his situation affect the way you handled yours?
MF: I don’t know Stephen Glass, and I’m not sure what he did after he was exposed. I made one mistake. I combined actual interviews. I didn’t invent things out of whole cloth. Thank God it wasn’t life-threatening. I rationalize it. I didn’t murder anybody. I wasn’t drunk-driving. If you’ve done something you can’t blame on external factors, it’s very difficult to escape from yourself. I still haven’t forgiven myself.
EI: Do you think the term “fabulist” makes you sound like the new member of the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy posse?
MF: [laughs] That’s fucking funny. Let’s see … You look fabulist! To me, it sort of sounds like a Danish pop band.
EI: Would you participate in a pay-per-view battle royal pitting you against Glass and Jayson Blair?
MF: Let’s take this seriously. What are Glass’s stats?
EI: He seems frail. But if Blair gets you down low and there’s grappling or Brazilian jujitsu involved, you’re in trouble.
MF: My specialty is running. I gotta get one shot in and run. I’m more concerned with Blair than Glass, for sure.
EI: Brad Pitt’s production company signed on to make a film out of your book. If he plays you, I’d say Finkel 1, Glass 0. He only got Hayden Christensen for his movie.
MF: They’re thinking about Angelina Jolie for me.
EI: Then it’s Finkel 10, Glass 0. One last, lighter question …
MF: Like, how horrible is all this going to make me sound?
EI: I’m sure it won’t be half as bad as you imagine.
MF: But twice as bad as anything else.
EI: So if you’d be interested in writing for us and you cut me in on your freelance rate, I’ll make sure our fact-checker is “on vacation” when your story comes in. Capice?
MF: Ouch. Do you want me to comment on that?
EI: Um. If you’d like to.
MF: That’s the last pin in the Finkel voodoo doll right there.
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