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Monday 1 July 2024

Interview: Michael Finkel in Conversation with Jill Amadio

Photo by Doug Loneman

Michal Finkel is an author and journalist.
He is the best-selling author of 
The Stranger in the Woods:
The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit  and True Story: 
Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa.
He lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Jill:          What is your writing background and when did you begin writing books?
Michael: I've been a journalist nearly all my life. I worked for my high-school newspaper, my college newspaper, and then as soon as I graduated, I took my first job, at Skiing Magazine. I've been a full-time freelance writer for 35 years. Jeez. That's a long time. My first book, True Story -- a (yes) true story about a murderer who took on my identity, was published in 2005. True Story was later adapted into a 2015 film, also called True Story, produced by Brad Pitt's production company and starring James France and Jonah Hill.

Jill:          Why/how were you inspired to choose true crime?
Michael: I am in awe of the world's heroes and humanitarians, the firefighters and freedom fighters. I admire them like pristine and distant stars, untouchable. But when it comes to writing, it's the misfits, the scallywags, the rule-breakers, the criminal outliers that grab me. These are the people I like to speak with. I'm not trying to excuse their criminality, but I am interested in getting to know the whole of such people, flaws and virtues alike. I supposed that I simply find outlaws to be interesting and unpredictable conversationalists.

Jill:          What is the strangest criminal case you have covered? 
Michael: The case that became my first book, True Story. This is the story of Christian Longo, who murdered four people (his wife and three children) in 2001, and then fled the United States to Mexico. While in Mexico, he told many of the people he met that his name was Mike Finkel -- yes, my name -- and that he was a freelance reporter, just like me. After his arrest, the only journalist Longo agreed to speak with was, you guessed it, the real Mike Finkel.

Jill:          How do you find your subjects?
Michael: I look for extraordinary stories, with many unpredictable twists and turns, that slip between the cracks, not covered by television news or daily papers. Finding a suitable subject often takes me a very long time. As does gaining the trust of the subject. I've worked on some of my stories, off and on, for more than a decade.

Jill:          What are the major challenges/obstacles/pitfalls you encounter for your books?
Michael: I need to speak with the main character, the criminal, myself. If the main character isn't willing to consent to an interview, or if he or she demands payment for an interview, or any editorial control, I won't write the story.

Jill:          Have there been repercussions as a result of any of your true crime books?
Michael: Lots of people now come to me with very strange and often unsettling ideas for books.  

Jill:          Coincidences seem to have directed much of your writing life. What’s the story with the murderer, Christian Longo?
Michael: With the murderer who took on my identity while on the run, I spent more than a year exchanging letters, visiting Longo in jail, and speaking with him on the phone. Longo desperately wanted me to believe that he was innocent. The entire relationship between us felt morally queasy. In the end, however, I became certain that Longo was guilty, and he was found guilty at his trial.

Jill:          How have your books been received by criminal subjects?
Michael: I don't write my books in any way to please the criminal subjects -- I write them for readers. That said, I've generally been told by the subjects of my magazine articles and books that they found my portrayal of them to be "fair."

Jill:          Have you been forced to quit writing a true crime book for any reason?
Michael:  I'm sometimes unable to secure the interviews I seek, and so have to abandon a project.

Jill:          What is your publishing history?
Michael:  I published a collection of my skiing articles, in a book called  Alpine Circus, in 1999. Then I published True Story, about the murderer who took on my identity, in 2005.

The Stranger in the Woods, is about a man who lived for more than a quarter-century in the woods of Maine, stealing from homes to supply himself with food, clothing, and books, it was published in 2017. Stranger appeared on The New York Times bestsellers list.

Jill:          "The Art Thief," about one of the world's most prolific art thieves, was published in 2023, and also appeared on The New York Times bestsellers list.
Michael: That's it!

Jill:          Which of your several books has been the most exciting or most fun to write?
Michael: The Art Thief was the most fun, because the crimes weren't violent, and the thief, named Stéphane Breitwieser, pulled off his heists with style and finesse.

Jill: How do you conduct your research?
Michael: Research takes up an enormous amount of my time, usually about a year's worth of work for one of my books. For The Art Thief, even after I made several reporting trips throughout France and Switzerland, and interviewed not only the thief but also many lawyers, police officers, and others, I then read more than 70 books on art crime and similar topics and read thousands of articles on subjects related to art thieving. I am an inefficient writer, to say the least.

Jill:          Hobbies?
Michael: I love spending time outdoors, either solo or with my family. I like to camp out, hike, climb mountains, mountain bike, play hockey, and -- most of all -- I love to ski.

Jill:          What is your writing process?
Michael: Slow and frustrating. I usually start with a huge draft, which I call my "block of granite," and carve my book out of that. So I'm really cutting prose as much as writing it. For The Art Thief, my block of granite was more than 1,000 pages long. The final book is scarcely over 200 pages. So that's a ton of cutting and honing.

Jill:          How many interviews did you conduct for your latest book, The Art Thief ?
Michael: Dozens. 

Jill:          Do you visit the true crime settings?
Michael: Yes, always. It's a must.

Jill:          Writing routine? 
Michael: I like to write late at night, when my family is asleep and I can concentrate and not wonder whether I should be outside enjoying the day. 

Jill: What is the best form of marketing you prefer? 
Michael: Any marketing that results in my book reaching readers' hands. It's sort of a mystery how that even happens. I do like chatting on podcasts.

Jill: How has success changed your life, if at all? 
Michael: I still fly coach class and my kids still don't listen to me, so I'd say not much at all. 

Jill: What’s next?
Michael: If anyone has any ideas, please contact me! You can reach me through my website,

Jill Amadio hails from Cornwall, U.K, like the character in her crime series, Jill was a reporter in Spain, Colombia,  Thailand, and the U.S. She is a true crime author, ghosted a thriller, writes a column for

Mystery People ezine, and freelances for My Cornwall magazine.
She lives in Connecticut USA.  Her most recent book is
In Terror's Deadly Clasp,

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