Finkel, Michael 1969(?)–
Finkel, Michael 1969(?)–
PERSONAL: Born c. 1969. Education: Attended University of Pennsylvania.
ADDRESSES: Home—Bozeman, MT. Agent—c/o Author Mail, HarperCollins Publishers, 10 E. 53rd St., 7th Fl., New York, NY 10022.
CAREER: Writer and journalist.
Alpine Circus: A Skier's Exotic Adventures at the Snowy Edge of the World (autobiographical stories), Lyons Press (New York, NY), 1999.
True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa (nonfiction), HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2005.
Contributor to periodicals such as National Geographic Adventure, Rolling Stone, Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Skiing, Audubon, Outside, Women's Sports and Fitness, Sports Illustrated, Ski, and New York Times Magazine.
ADAPTATIONS: True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa was adapted for audiocassette, read by the author, Harper Audio, 2005.
SIDELIGHTS: Writer and journalist Michael Finkel is an outdoorsman and ski enthusiast who frequently writes about skiing and related topics. During the 1990s, Finkel was a prominent contributor to numerous publications, chief among them the New York Times Magazine. In the early 2000s he was sidelined by scandal but found himself with the chance to salvage his reputation and career following a bizarre and complicated episode of identity theft by a convicted murderer.
Much of Finkel's early work involves ski journalism. In the collection Alpine Circus: A Skier's Exotic Adventures at the Snowy Edge of the World, Finkel relates stories of his experiences on skis in areas throughout the world. "Part anthropologist, part self-deprecating comedian, part skier and all adventurer, Finkel takes readers along as he explores the dynam-ics of playing across the globe," wrote Carter G. Walker in a profile of the author on the Outside Bozeman Web site. Readers will "get a great lesson in geography, world cultures, and human nature," commented reviewer Jane S. Drabkin in School Library Journal.
In 2002, Finkel's fortunes as a sought-after writer and magazine journalist changed. The journalist's downfall began with a story he wrote for the New York Times Magazine. In the summer of 2001, Finkel traveled to the Ivory Coast to investigate reports of widespread child slavery on cocoa plantations in Mali and elsewhere. Despite his best efforts, he could find no real evidence of slavery. He did find, however, that children were working grueling hours in difficult conditions and that their wages were scandalously low. It appeared to Finkel that anyone working these plantations was there voluntarily and that no one suffered abuse, privation, or any other conditions associated with slavery. Claims of slavery, it seemed to him, has been exaggerated by aid agencies eager to advance their own agenda.
This new angle did not match the type of story Finkel's editors at the New York Times Magazine wanted. After writing several unsuccessful drafts, he was encouraged to "go literary": in other words, his editor encouraged him "to write a profile of a single worker that would convey the complexities he was describing," reported Ira Boudway in the Weekly Standard. In response, Finkel wrote the type of article the magazine wanted, focusing on a nonexistent Malian boy who was a composite of several children he had already interviewed. The article was published, and by all accounts was a quality piece exhibiting the same high standard as other work Finkel had submitted to the magazine. However, the critical difference was that while the essential story and the spirit of the article were accurate, the information was not strictly factual. Finkel was excoriated for the article, fired from the magazine, publicly humiliated, and slotted into the company of fellow fabricators Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair.
Finkel retreated to his home in Bozeman, Montana, but within hours of learning of his fate at the New York Times Magazine he encountered another bizarre twist. When a reporter from Portland's Oregonian contacted him, Finkel congratulated the reporter on being the first to call regarding the article and his firing. However, the reporter had no idea that Finkel's professional career had just ended; instead, he was calling about a man named Christian Longo who had just been arrested in Mexico, having lived there under Finkel's identity while wanted on suspicion of murdering his wife and three children. Finkel was stunned, but as he absorbed the strangeness of the situation, his journalistic instincts flared. He wanted to find out how he could get in touch with Longo. As he writes in True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa from the moment the reporter called from the Oregonian, "I'd had a vague sense that the beginnings of my redemption, both professional and personal, might somehow lie with Longo."
In True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa Finkel chronicles his downfall at the New York Times and his lengthy, contentious relationship with Longo. The evidence against Longo—not the least of which was his presence in Mexico under an assumed name—was strong. He was, in fact, eventually convicted of his family's murder. Yet as Finkel and Longo communicated with one another, each received something that would not have been available without the other: Longo, validation from an admired source, and Finkel, a chance to revisit and renew his journalism career.
Some critics wondered if Finkel was being straightforward in his description of his encounters with Longo, while others faulted him for using a relationship with a murderer as a springboard back into the writing field. "Not only has he profited from his own crime (his scoop would not have been possible without his earlier misdeed), Finkel then had the gall to get back on the horse and establish that he's still a formidable writer and reporter," commented Andrew O'Hehir for Salon.com. A Kirkus Reviews critic stated that Finkel's book "leaves us feeling used, and certainly no better for having met either figure." However, a Publishers Weekly reviewer found "a burning sincerity (and beautifully modulated writing) on every page, sufficient to convince most that this brilliant blend of true-crime and memoir does live up to its bald title."
"It's not hard to see why the New York Times thought so highly of Finkel as a journalist," commented Alexander Masters in the Spectator. "He's a controlled, clever writer: as this nightmarish moral story unravels, the tension between Finkel and Longo, and between Longo and everybody, in particular between Longo and himself, is mesmerising."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Finkel, Michael, Alpine Circus: A Skier's Exotic Adventures at the Snowy Edge of the World, Lyons Press (New York, NY), 1999.
Finkel, Michael, True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2005.
Bookseller, February 4, 2005, review of True Story, p. 37; May 20, 2005, "No More Lies: In the Press: An Unlikely Duo Make Copy," review of True Story, p. 42.
Boston Globe, June 5, 2005, Amanda Heller, review of True Story.
Columbia Journalism Review, May-June, 2005, Jesse Sunenblick, "Straight Story, Curved Universe: Why Michael Finkel Is Not Jayson Blair," p. 12.
Entertainment Weekly, May 27, 2005, Gregory Kirschling, review of True Story, p. 149.
Guardian (London, England), May 14, 2005, Blake Morrison, "Who's Who?," review of True Story.
Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 2005, review of True Story, p. 398.
Library Journal, October 1, 1999, Melinda Stivers Leach, review of Alpine Circus, p. 122; May 1, 2005, Deirdre Bray Root, review of True Story, p. 103.
New Statesman, May 30, 2005, Christopher Bray, "In Cold Blood," review of True Story, p. 52.
New York, March 4, 2002, Robert Kolker, "The Great Pretender?"
New York Times, May 29, 2005, Sridhar Pappu, "Murder, He Wrote," review of True Story.
Publishers Weekly, March 14, 2005, review of True Story, p. 52.
San Francisco Chronicle, June 5, 2005, Darren Everson, "Deceit and Redemption, Two Men and One Name," review of True Story.
School Library Journal, July, 2000, Jane S. Drabkin, review of Alpine Circus, p. 129.
Spectator, May 21, 2005, Alexander Masters, "No Ordinary Joe," review of True Story, p. 44.
Telegraph (London, England), May 29, 2005, Jim McCue, "Never Mind the Facts," review of True Story.
Times Literary Supplement, July 13, 2005, Benjamin Markovits, review of True Story.
Village Voice, June 7, 2005, Dennis Lim, "Mind Games," review of True Story.
Washington Post Book World, June 19, 2005, Steve Weinberg, "True Crime," review of True Story, p. 13.
Weekly Standard, June 20, 2005, Ira Boudway, "True Lies: A Failed Reporter and a Successful Murderer Join Forces," review of True Story, p. 33.
Outside Bozeman Web site, http://www.outsidebozeman.com/ (September 19, 2005), Carter G. Walker, "The Musings of Michael Finkel."
Salon.com, http://www.salon.com/ (June 7, 2005), Andrew O'Hehir, "The Journalist and the Murderer," review of True Story.