Mike Finkel’s bio reads more like Indiana Jones than a Journalist. He has traveled the world in his work for various magazines including climbing volcanos, delving into caves, meeting with native tribes in Tanzania, ascending the mountains of Afghanistan, hunting for extremely rare mushrooms in Tibet, and even investigating the black market human organ trade. He has written various, nonfiction books across a wide range of topics and has another on the way.
Mike joins me this week to discuss his latest book, A Stranger In the Woods, which revolves around a man who spent 27 years in the woods of Maine without ever coming in contact with a single person or even lighting a fire. We talk about Mike’s unique creative process and how he chooses the topics for his books. We also talk about how unique and valuable ever person’s story is.
“I believe that everybody has a fascinating story to tell, and nobody, if you ask the right questions, is really boring”
This week on the School For Good Living Podcast:
Connect with Mike:
Mike Finkel [00:00:01] I believe that everybody has a fascinating story to tell, and nobody, if you ask the right questions, is really boring.
Brilliant Miller [00:00:15] Hi, I’m Brilliant, your host for this show, I know that I’m incredibly blessed as the son of self-made billionaires, I’ve seen the high price some people pay for success and I’ve learned that money really can’t buy happiness. But I’ve also had the good fortune to learn directly from many of the world’s leading teachers. If you are ready to be, do have and give more. This podcast is for you. Every one of us occasionally at least, dreams of leaving modern life, being alone, finding solitude, peace, being in nature, something like that, but very few of us actually act on it, at least for any sustained period. Well, my guest today, Mike Finkel, is author of The Stranger in the Woods The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit. It’s the story of a man who lived alone in the woods of Maine for twenty seven years, never spent money, never lit a fire, said a single word to another human being, only encountered one person in all that time is an incredible book. As we discuss in this interview, I cried when I read it. I found it deeply moving, very insightful. I learned a lot. Mike’s bio reads more like Indiana Jones than a typical journalist. He’s traveled around the world writing for a variety of magazines like The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic Adventure Skiing magazine, GQ, Esquire. He has been a field spin on a field. Scientists study on a volcano in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in caves in Nepal that are filled with ancient artifacts, hunter gatherer tribes. In Tanzania, he’s visited and written about the high mountains of Afghanistan and seeking mushrooms in Tibet that are worth more than gold and the illicit like the black market, human organ trade. So all kinds of fascinating things. A very curious learner, kindred spirit. Think you will enjoy if you haven’t read his book already. This The Stranger in the Woods, I think you’ll probably really enjoy it. And I hope you enjoy this conversation with my new friend, Mike Finkel. Mike, welcome to the School for Good Living.
Mike F [00:02:22] I am honored to be here. Thank you for you.
Brilliant Miller [00:02:25] Mike, will you tell me, please, what is life about?
Mike Finkel [00:02:30] No, I will not. I think everyone has to come up with their own definition of that, but I think I think it is, I think satisfaction if I was going to just bring it down to one single word and not get too complicated, whatever makes you feel satisfied as as as slippery and multi definition of a word, that is, whatever it is that makes you feel content, unless, of course, it is ruining someone else’s contentment. And that will be the exception to the rule. We’ll get that. But whatever it is that makes you feel satisfied that you’re doing it right, life, that is.
Brilliant Miller [00:03:14] And for you, what is it that makes you feel content?
Mike Finkel [00:03:18] Well, I’m a polyglots, so, you know, it’s not even just one thing. It’s sort of a I have a busy my life feels almost overfull, as you just realized. I have three children. I have a wife. But she’s in the United States right now. I’m speaking to you from France. I have quite a full time job, two dogs and a lot of things going on. And so each day has its own little thread. And I mean, you’ve heard this said a lot of times, but I have to remind myself this probably hourly, which is to be presence. I have the tendency, like many people, to what’s next, what’s next, what did I just do rather than where am I now? I mean, as much as I like to write, as I like my job, as I like to be a father, as there’s frustrations in all of those things, I I’ve been blessed, I think in the in my I just have been blessed to be able to sort of squeeze a little bit of goodness out of most but not all situations, but most. So I’m sort of feeling presence. And even if I’m stuck in traffic and late to say an interview, I’m able to talk to my son about this. And he informed me as I was driving to to this interview here, that I was chewing gum extremely loud. But I had a discussion about how I felt like I was sort of it was making me think better somehow being able to chew that. And we had to turn off the radio so I could sort of center myself. So anyway, being present and seeking sort of satisfaction, even in the mundane, because life, of course, if life was life, can never, always be extraordinary. It’s really if you’re able to find satisfaction in the mundane, then I think you’re really well on the way to living what I consider a really strong life. Awesome.
Brilliant Miller [00:05:00] Well, I wouldn’t when I hear you use the word mundane, I know that every life has some ordinary moments, to be sure. But that’s definitely not a word that I would think would be prominent in your life. This word mundane, just reading your bio about traveling the world, investigating, following these incredible stories, whether it’s about organ harvesting or about combatants in Afghanistan or potential, you know, slave workers in Africa or something. But tell me it. So I’ve just teased a little bit of this, perhaps. But who are you, at least professionally, if you want to answer? Personally, I’d love to hear that as well. But who are you and what do you do in the world?
Mike Finkel [00:05:40] I will answer that. But I think sometimes when people hear like, this amazing resume on someone and feel like they you know, this person travels the world and does all this talent philanthropy and has a family in this, you know, sometimes I feel like that’s almost masking and, you know, I’m a human being. I get jealous of that, too. I’m jealous of everybody else’s Facebook feed, of course. And I think that sort of mass reality anyway. So Mike Finkel, it’s my name. I am a journalist by profession and I really am passionate about it. So really, I don’t have a firm dividing line between my profession and my person. I’m also a father of three fairly young children, although they’re moving into teenage years. I love to travel. And when I was younger and single, I traveled sort of in a spastic way. And now that I have a family, it’s more of a slightly mellower, slower way. We’ve decamped to France and have lived here for several years, and I’m very lucky that I get to write about subjects that grabbed me in my curiosity spot. And lately it’s been like weird criminals, scientific breakthroughs and, you know, basically the astronomy and physics, so and when I was younger, it was as it was like skiing and sports, whatever sort of grabs me. I think one of the wonderful things about being a journalist is that you’re able to whatever makes you whatever makes you passionate, you can pursue as a career. So it’s really when someone asked me, for example, Mike, you seem satisfied with your job. What what should I do for for a living? Where I start always is. You know, if I gave you a million dollars, what would you do? And if money was not an issue, what would you do? And if they say, oh, I would ski and, you know, write stories, I’m like, maybe you should consider becoming a ski writer or something like that. And so and so that is why I feel very blessed, because what I would do if money was no object is not too dissimilar to what I do now. I think I would have someone else maybe do a lot of the cleaning and gardening. But other than that, I feel very, very lucky in that way.
Brilliant Miller [00:08:06] That’s awesome. Well, tell me tell me about your move to France, because I understand you grew up in Montana and that’s across a very big ocean, probably a very big change of pace from from the life that you lived, at least in your younger years. What’s that about?
Mike Finkel [00:08:21] Yeah. So I I guess you could say I grew up in Montana. I like to say that. But I have to say, having lived in Montana for twenty five years, I can’t claim Montana shit. But, you know, Montana is one of those states where if you’re not born there, maybe even if your parents weren’t born there, you can’t really claim native status. I’m from the East Coast of the United States and went to high school in Connecticut and went to university in Philadelphia. But I always loved the Rocky Mountains, my family vacations there. When I was growing up and twenty one years old, I moved out to Bozeman, Montana, hoping to become a writer. It’s pretty inexpensive to live there compared to other places in the United States and was very fortunate that I was able to have a successful freelance writing career. I think it might be harder to do this right now. But this was 30 years ago. I met my wife, who is from Florida. And for those of us who may be geographically a little short changed, Florida and Montana do not have the same climate. And so, Jill, my wife was not happy after our first, seventh or eighth winter in Montana, and we decided to move to someplace warmer. And we’re both fairly adventurous travelers. My wife is a professor, but she does a lot of research. So she has a flexible job. I have a flexible job. And the south of France, somehow by I wish I could get, if you like, the logical reason. In fact, we only have an illogical reason. We really wanted our kids to learn a second language and we kind of wanted it to be Spanish, but somehow we ended up in France. But that was more than five years ago. In fact, it was six years ago. And we didn’t know if we would stay for more than six months, which was our minimum. And we I didn’t speak French. We moved here and I really got into learning the language of my children. It took like six months in. We were just sort of figuring things out and I guess one six month period led to another. And now we’ve done six years.
Brilliant Miller [00:10:14] Wow. I think no one could accuse you fairly of being a short timer with any do it seems. But part of what to me is interesting in your life journey of you moving and following your passions and making even making a career of it or moving your family to France and staying for six years and encouraging them or gifting them. However, you might look at it with, you know, understanding another culture is this idea that you do things that many people only dream of, many people think about, talk about, but never actually do. And one and your subjects in some of what you’ve written about are that same way in particular. And the reason I’m pausing here is I’m thinking about you have some really interesting subjects and the books you write. And what’s this thing about them being named, Chris? Some of them being named. Chris, I do want to ask you about this. What’s this thing about? There’s a murderer that took your name on. You began a correspondence like it was made into a movie. Few people have experiences like that in their whole lives.
Mike Finkel [00:11:21] I think I’ll try and tell this story as briefly as possible. There’s no secrets on the Internet. So very briefly, I was the writer for the Sunday New York Times magazine for a couple of years, and I was actually fired from that job. So I know ups and downs also. I don’t want anybody who listens or watches this to think that, you know, I do some sort of media or, like, success story. Yeah, it was I had a story assignment in West Africa and I decided to combine a bunch of different young boy. I was doing a story about slave labor, perhaps on coca, chocolate plantations of slavery and chocolate. We’re like the buzz words. And it was very complicated whether this was extreme poverty or whether these young kids were picking cocoa beans, which is the wrong medium for chocolate, were being abused, or whether it’s just very, very, very poor part of the world. And I combined a bunch of different interviews together to make one sort of through line. I thought it would be simpler for the reader or more appealing. And anyway, this is against the rules of journalism. I was caught for that. The New York Times is quite strict and I was fired from my job, which was my dream job, which is to write long features for a magazine, for a newspaper magazine that really gets that makes a big a difference. And I was actually quite devastated. I was, I think, thirty years old. So it was more than 20 years ago. And I’m getting into the real story the very day basically that I lost my identity. Mike Finkel of The New York Times. That’s who I felt like I was. Mike Fink of The New York Times. It was almost like my new last name of The New York Times. I was very proud of that. I was fired, didn’t know if I would even get another writing job at all. I found out this is, by the way, one hundred percent true. There’s no B.S. going on here. I found out that a man. Who was wanted for four murders and not just for murders, for terrible murders of his wife and three children, had been running around in Mexico telling everyone that his name was Mike Finkel of The New York Times. In other words, at the very moment that I lost my identity, I found out that someone else had sort of taken it. Now, the two are not related, but this is absolutely true. Now, when I found out about this. Of course, I was like, I’m not. It’s not like you two is like Stephen King or something like that. I’m just I’m really not a very well known name. But of course, I was curious and the journalists were all like, well, this guy is not talking to anyone. He’s he’s in jail in Oregon. He was extradited from Mexico, brought to Oregon. And he’s not speaking to anyone. Everyone’s trying. And I wrote him a letter saying I just I told you that I lost my job. I had made a mistake. I felt really wounded. And suddenly I found out that you took out my name. And of course, I’m horrified about these. Murders, but in the United States, as we all know, you’re innocent until proven guilty, so you want to talk to me? I asked the other Mike Finkel, whose real name is Chris Chris Longo, and thus commenced a one year, incredibly fraught, intricate, bizarre, fascinating, frightening correspondence with a guy who was accused of these murders, claimed he was innocent, took on my name, told me that he would give me the scoop of the century and prove his innocence to me and I could redeem my name and become a journalist again. And I’m wondering if this guy is telling the truth or is a pathological liar. And it all got so twisted that I had to write a book about it. My first book, which I called True Story, because it was about a pathological liar and that also became a movie. And so lots of weird things happened. And that was that is the most compact version of this very complicated story.
Brilliant Miller [00:15:18] It’s it really is one of these that truth is stranger than fiction, isn’t it?
Mike Finkel [00:15:22] In fact, if it was if I made it up, you would throw the book across the room and say, this isn’t believable, but it actually is 100 percent true. And that was my that was my sort of launch into the book world, my transition from magazines into writing longer form.
Brilliant Miller [00:15:36] And the in the next book you wrote was The Stranger In The Woods, The Extraordinary True Story, The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit. And I don’t want to ask you to try to recreate the book, because that would be unfair and be unfair to the listener, it would be unfair to you. But I do want to ask you about the story behind the book. And and by the way, I just want to say this right here at the outset, like, I love this book. This was something that I read in large passages to my wife. I cried at certain points when I read it, just recognizing. The kind of box that we’re asked to fit into in society, just with whatever social agreements, whatever society we’re born into. But we all have our own individuality and we’re sometimes asked to conform to things that aren’t there, probably not healthy, they’re not comfortable, they’re unpleasant or painful, they’re difficult. But of course, some people opt out of that. So let me let me just ask you if you will let me start by asking this even before we talk about the book, why did you why did you write this book? Because this took years. I mean, this was years. This was a big commitment.
Mike Finkel [00:16:52] Of course, I think I mentioned earlier that I have like a curiosity receptor in me. I’m actually extraordinarily curious about a huge number of things. But I spend some of my day. Sometimes I work days is quite fun. Sometimes it’s a burden, some sort of reading small town newspapers online. And I read a very short piece, apparently true, from a newspaper about a man who was arrested breaking into a summer camp. It was closed for the season stealing like hamburger meat and upon his arrest mentioned that he had been living all alone in the woods of Maine, Maine. It’s like Montana, extremely cold for twenty seven years in which he had one time encountered one human being and said a single syllable, which was drumroll, please, hi. And apparently had stolen like food and lots and lots of books and had been living in this campsite for more than a quarter of a century. And I just read this little thing and I was. Overwhelmed with questions, and if this sounds similar to this previous story, you know, this is a person who hadn’t spoken or spoke one word in twenty seven years. And once again, I called up his lawyer again. He was arrested for stealing minor things, but still breaking and entering and so was being held in jail in. This lawyer, of course, said join the club. Five hundred journalists have gotten in touch. And I just felt that’s a very powerful curiosity and weird. I’m going to use the word compassion, even though this is a criminal and wrote him a letter and I’m going to share with you what one of my secrets in the world, which I have to give credit to my mother when I was growing up, every time I had a birthday, my mother made me hand write thank you notes to everyone who came. And I don’t think I ever liked it. But, boy, I’m telling you right now, people who are listening in this day and age when everyone texts and emails and video conferences putting the pen to a paper, they used to have these things called envelopes and stamps. You should look them up. They still work. You can write a letter by hand. And it makes such a difference, especially now when nobody writes by hand. I wrote them by hand and I might have been the only one of the five hundred journalists who was interested, who wrote them by hand. It might be as simple as that. And I also like to be very open about who I am and my curiosity. Anyway, this man who spent twenty seven years alone and was now in jail, also named Chris Chris Knight, wrote me back and I was concerned that someone like that would just be crazy or uncommunicative. And I knew from this very first letter that he was possibly an extremely intelligent, funny, which you don’t expect a hermit to be, and had an insanely fascinating story to tell. And that was that also launched. I mean, that’s like catnip for a journalist, but also it comes from a very genuine place. And I kind of think that some of the people I speak with understand that I really don’t try to make someone look like a freak. I actually try to reach a point of empathy and understanding. And I’m hoping that maybe some of that came out in between the lines of my handwritten letter. Anyway, we started an epistolary, a letter writing relationship, which is a great way to meet someone who doesn’t like to talk. Writing letters is a beautiful way to communicate doing it. We’ve been doing it for millennia and that, again, launched a several year project. And I just found this. And I’m so brilliant. When you told me your reaction to the book, it really, really touches me because I too was quite moved by Chris Knight’s story. You can almost like, think about it, get off and get teary. He’s a very, very interesting man. But as you as you intuited, the subtext is the subtext of the book isn’t just about this person, but where do we put people that don’t really fit into the world? And I know a lot of my best friends are sort of outliers and we don’t really have places for those. And almost all of those people feel very left out of the world. And so that is sort of the subtext of the whole story and one of the reasons why the project so gripped me.
Brilliant Miller [00:21:08] Yeah, yeah. In this and all these things is, you know, like any great story does that it opens with this action sequence that you talk about, Chris, breaking in and stealing food. We talk about breaking he’d had a key or all these years of breaking into these cabins in Maine. He was very smart about it, didn’t obviously didn’t want to hurt anybody, didn’t even want to encounter anybody, didn’t leave a track. But all these things about never getting sick when he talks about, of course, I didn’t get sick. I didn’t interact with other people, never spending money, never lighting a fire, as you said, saying a single word like it’s unbelievable. And then you point out that he’s within sight and sound of other humans, like unbeknownst. Right. And I don’t want to give away the whole book because for anybody listening, if you’ve got a long weekend or a vacation coming up or whatever, it’s like this book as a true story. But something that’s also as good as any fiction you’re going to pick up is just absolutely fascinating. But what I’m kind of going just with sharing some of what was so amazing to me is I’m also really interested in you talk about you have this letter writing relationship that he entered into somewhat reluctantly when he was in jail, which I can barely imagine how that must have been for him to go from being in nature for twenty seven years by choice to the confines of this cell and then you visit him. So in addition to writing letters, you visit him. And I’m curious, what was that like? What was your first meeting with Chris like?
Mike Finkel [00:22:41] Yeah, I’ll talk to you about, about that. And even as you were speaking, I was just thinking of this year that everyone else on planet Earth has endured where there’s been this forced solitude. I cannot tell you how many, how often, how frequently things that Chris Knight, the person who spent twenty seven years completely alone, like little advice and little thoughts that he had imparted to me, which was so helpful during during this era, you know, I’m a I’m a social part of my job is running around and talking to strangers in foreign lands. And some of you can’t talk to any strangers in person or travel. So, yes, Chris, for those of you who have never visited someone in jail, it’s very stressful. It’s it’s you know, as you’ve seen. Perhaps in the movie, you know, you’re locked in like a little phone booth sized thing, and in the case with Chris Knight and with Chris Longo, the murderer, we’re separated by bulletproof glass. We’re talking an old fashioned scratchy phones and there’s a limited amount of time. There’s guards around and there’s a lot of banging and booming going on that you sort of can’t see. And in that sort of. Stress, fullness and pressure. I actually I don’t want to say I like it because that would be an incorrect word, but there’s some truth that comes out. There’s some reason that when you’re faced like these extreme situations, I feel like you can’t really B.S. somebody there’s some sort of like you’re sort of vulnerable, both of us. You know, I’m freaked out that I’ve I’ve had to be escorted into a jail. And of course, the Chris Knight, who the man who wants to be alone, is now literally locked in a cage with another person. He’s vulnerable. And I believe that in that situation, a lot of truth bubbles up in the least expected spot. And this is why in the first book about the murderer, almost every thing that I found very profound became came from a letter or jail visit. Again, Chris Knight. And I’m working on another book now about a person who is obsessed with stealing works of art. And once again, there’s been some jail time and some letter writing. And I just find in both of those situations pen to paper when, you know, when you’re taking the time to do that again, I feel like you’re not really trying to con somebody. I feel like you can’t help. But truth comes out. And also in this pressure filled situation of a jail, I feel like you’re too vulnerable to really all your all your defenses come down and and the core of who you are comes out and whether you’re a good person or a bad person, I think kind of shines. And and Chris Knight, the Kermit’s case, I saw a decent human being wrapped in someone who is troubled and in Chris Longo, the murderer, I saw a blakley horrible person wrapped in someone who was trying to be good. Wow.
Brilliant Miller [00:25:36] One thing I’m curious if you’re willing to kind of break down for me and people listening, I know this is maybe right down the rabbit hole, really esoterica. I’m not sure what practical value this would have for people beyond their curiosity, but I thought it was interesting in this book where you talk about there are three types of hermits, right. Historically. And one thing I love that I didn’t know is that people in England used to pay Hermit’s to live on their land like it was a sign of data or something to have a hermit come down and mingle at parties and things like this, which is not really a hermit at all, is it? But what are these what are these three types of hermits and what role have hermits played in our culture historically?
Mike Finkel [00:26:16] Well, first thing I should say is that if you want to you mentioned that you have some writers and people that hope to be writers listening. And if you’re at all interested in nonfiction writing, and I think this also applies to a lot of fiction writers, I love to research. I mean, come on, if you want to be a writer and you better love to read, I pretty much that’s a given. I’ve never met a writer who doesn’t like to read. So of course, not only did I want to interview Chris Knight this format, but I want to see pretty much everything that was ever written about Hermit’s, which is a lot. But I, I dove into research and because I’m a spoiled brat and I take a lot of time with my projects I spent, this is not an exaggeration. Exaggeration, one year researching Hermit’s that a couple of hundred books, tens of thousands of articles. And then I tried to categorize.
Brilliant Miller [00:27:07] Sorry to interrupt there, but I just want to before that goes any further. I love to that your research was getting on a forum for Hermit’s. There is such a thing.
Mike Finkel [00:27:17] Hermitary.com. Come on guys. I found it to be very beautiful. The person who runs her, Mitry and I respect this, determines whether or not you qualify as a hermit before you are allowed to go into the chat rooms. And as I mentioned before, although I’m a journalist and I’m no, I’ll ask you four or five times and I don’t take no once or twice as an answer, but I also try to be open and honest. I did not qualify for the hermit chat rooms and I respected that entirely. But yes, Hermitary.com is a forum for Hermit’s. That’s a great resource. So I read all these books and I really try to when I’m doing the three categories, that’s sort of my own way. This is like this is what I like about writing a book. I’m just sort of breaking things down how my head got around it. So the first one, we can get out of the way fairly quickly, but it’s the biggest category, which is religious hermit’s, which is huge. I mean, I think anybody thinks about people spending time alone. Religion has to come up. I mean, Jesus spent 40 days in the Jordanian desert before he started gathering his apostles. And Muhammad was alone in a cave in Mecca when the Angel Gabriel started dictating the Koran. And Buddha was all alone under a tree and present day India when he achieved Nirvana. So, I mean, it’s just that only three billion people follow those religions now. So anyway, religion, the second thing is sort of like when you think about I think people think about Thoreau, especially since he also spent a lot of time in Maine. And the hermit that I wrote about spent time in Maine. And that’s sort of more of like a seeker, like you’re you’re seeking enlightenment. You’re seeking knowledge, you’re seeking an experience, and then the third category is people that just reject the world entirely, protesting a I’m protesting war or poverty or a lot of there’s a lot of hermit’s that protest environmental destruction. So we have like the the pilgrims, as I call the religious ones, the protesters. And the third category, which also started with a P. But it’s not coming to my mind right now. But the ones that are seeking a sort of a breakthrough through.
Brilliant Miller [00:29:26] The pursuers, I think you call.
Mike Finkel [00:29:28] Thank you. I’m the one who came up with that and I still forgot it. It’s afternoon here in France.
Brilliant Miller [00:29:34] Yeah. So what type of hermit was Chris?
Mike Finkel [00:29:38] Yes. So first of all, I mean, this category that everything fits in and then, of course, the one dude uprighting well, doesn’t quite fit into any of them. This and this is one of the things that you. Yes, I could spend a couple of years on a project. You know, I’m going to say something about Chris Knight that I think that all of your listeners are going to say, no, that’s not true. And then I’m going to say to them, we’ll come up with a counterexample. Chris Knight. Right here in the twenty first century, with seven billion people on Earth and all of us connected to our smartphones, I posit no, I say is the most solitary known human who has ever lived. Now, the accent should be on the word no. Is it possible that someone lived longer and we just never found out about them yet? I’m going to give you that. But known hermit I researched fanatically for one year. I mean, you could start coming up with, you know, with Christian Saints. And I would say all of this Christian Saints, even if they spent like 40 years in the cave, had people coming to take lessons from them, had people coming to bring them food, they wove baskets, they had people coming to sell them in town. This guy was all alone for twenty seven years. He is beyond category. He’s an outlier beyond all outliers and also highly intelligent and willing to talk to me. And I found that irresistible. And he. With such a prickly, interesting, intelligent, unusual person that I can talk about him for a while, but he was a genuine the true hermit sort of assist them, as they say in France, when something is too difficult, it’s category. It’s out of category. So he’s sort of the outlier of outliers.
Brilliant Miller [00:31:26] Yeah, no doubt. Now, there’s some people that don’t believe his that he did what he says he did.
Mike Finkel [00:31:33] Do you? Well, first of all, if you don’t believe what he says he did, I don’t blame you because it’s not believable. It’s unbelievable. Like the true truest sense of the word. Do I believe what he said, which is a person who spent twenty seven years all alone in Maine, not just camping out, but never listen to me. People, especially campers out there, never lit a fire. To me, that is mind boggling. I’m a I’m an outdoor aficionado and Maine is really cold for a long time and I love to have a campfire. So if you don’t believe that this guy did this, I completely acknowledge that, however. I am 100 percent sure I’m not even a hundred percent sure that the sun is going to rise tomorrow morning, but I’m a hundred percent sure that this guy said did what he did for several reasons. And the quickest one is that truly Chris Knight did not want any publicity. He didn’t even want me to write a book about him. He acquiesced because so many journalists got in touch and he realized that if he didn’t speak to one, he would be hounded for all his life. And I sort of understood this dynamic, this guy. And then as soon as we were done talking, we have never spoken again. He did not want to be my friend. He was done with me. This is a person who wanted no publicity. The only reason to lie and to make something up is because you want attention. This guy did not want it. He has no reason. And then, of course, I spent. But it’s been four years since the five years since I started the project. I wanted someone to show me one shred of evidence that anything that he had, that anything he said was not true. And no one has come up with it. So I invite anyone to bring me some evidence. It’s it’s just this man did do what he said. And if you don’t believe it, as I said, I completely understand. But sorry, you’re wrong.
Brilliant Miller [00:33:19] What do you see is. Well, before I move to this question, I just want to share, like. Where you capture some of his words verbatim, right, so you relate in the book, so we get to learn. We get to hear Chris’s voice through your writing. And one of the things that he wrote or that you wrote that he said was years were meaningless. So this is Chris saying years were meaningless. I measured time by the season and the moon. The moon was the minute hand. The seasons, the our hand. Right in this relationship to nature that in some ways to me was very like animalistic, right, where he would store fat for the coming winter, he knew, of course, it was coming and he, with his goal was to get fat and then to survive and to still have some fat on him. Some years he did, some years he almost died. Just really amazing. And all the things he never did, a fire money, talking to people, whatever, never prayed except when he got super cold and prayed for warmth and that whole thing. There was just like you were saying about being in the jail cell with someone. And there’s almost like a clearing where truth shows up in a way that it doesn’t tend to for us in day to day living, normal interaction. Right. And there was something in that quality of him just talking about being in nature, being part of nature, surviving. That was so that was part of what touched me so deeply was that I think humans probably live that way for hundreds of thousands of years. And now we’ve got all this covering, all this comfort, all these conveniences that that have shielded us from that memory, you know, in some ways. So if there’s a question that follows from this, it’s what what lesson? Assuming there’s one and I know there’s probably many and everyone has their own and things like that, but what can we learn from Chris?
Mike Finkel [00:35:07] Yeah, first of all, thank you so much for reading that line. I did actually get a few goosebumps when you’re reading it. When, when, if. First of all, I want to do one thing, which is to publicly hear. Thank Chris Knight for speaking to me. If the book is any good, it’s only because Chris Knight spoke to me so beautifully, eloquently and openly. And if he does happen to listen to this. Thank you, Chris, I could never really thank you enough. Yeah, I mean, this is one of the joys of being a journalist. Maybe I’m actually maybe not a very good writer. I maybe just people say really beautiful things to me and I don’t write them down. Yeah. When he said The Moon is the minute and the seasons of the hour, it’s just pure prose poetry. And I tell you, I look at the moon every night and think about that line off the there’s the minute hand. Last night it was just what I call like a toenail clipping, just a tiny little sliver of moon here in France. And so I know I kind of keep track of that. And it’s just a beautiful thing. And as you brilliant just hinted at that, we’ve sort of. Sort of lost track of this natural timepiece of moons and seasons, and I feel like within what you were just saying was that we all are in some sort of a mad rush to do something. And if you if there’s one lesson that Chris Knight that I’d love that for him to impart it to everyone, not just me. Now, this is a little a little unusual, but in general, I feel that society is opening itself up in this sort of like mad rush. And in all all the things that are supposedly there to save us time, I think, have only made us feel more harried and more rushed. I feel like, you know, something like text messages, which I think all that saves me a phone call. Now my freaking phone is ringing off the hook. I have to silence it for this thing. I’m sure there’s like eight message there. And I’m telling you, there’s a little dopamine receptor in my head that wants to go check those messages. I’m just like everyone else. I’m truly addicted to my phone. This is what I’m going to ask everyone to do, and it’s easy, the easiest thing in the world to do and at the same time. Almost impossible, which is. To do nothing, if you could do nothing. For 15 minutes a day, that is really difficult, let’s start with two two minutes a day of nothing. Now, if you’d like to pray, if you’d like to meditate, that’s fine. So nothing could be in there. But this is what you need to do. You need to put down your phone or your computer or even your iPad, iPod. Just take away the music and just you can be in the middle of New York City or in the middle of Yellowstone National Park. But if you just stop and do nothing for two minutes a day, just I’d like to go when I’m doing my nothing. I’m actually of course, my brain is still working and no one can turn off the brain. I do this little what I call the sense check through all of my senses. What am I seeing? Which is easy. What am I hearing? What am I feeling? When am I smelling? What am I? And then I sort of go Zen, which is I let you know after I’ve done my sense check, it’s sort of my like transition from the world to the nothing. And then I’d just be. Ninety seconds. I mean, I got three kids, I got dogs, they can be shouting my name, the dogs could be barking, I could be late for something. And I’m just going to stand my ground for the next seventy five seconds and do nothing and just take it in. I’m late. That’s fine. I take it in my mind, my youngest child, you know, if it’s a if it’s a true cry of distress, of course I’m not going to, I’m not going to sit there and do nothing but I’ll just take it all in and it really if you’re at all like sort of beset by modern life. And I felt it today, even just like I said, running to this interview, which is why I’m so glad you sort of took a nice breath before we started. If you feel beset by modern life, if you could start with two minutes a day, I think of the whole world of all, seven point nine billion of us took two minutes a day to do nothing but center ourselves. We would the whole temperature of society. I think you understand what I mean by that. Metaphorically, the temperature of society would drop an essential degree or two. We’d all just get along a little better. Yeah, that’s what I thought.
Brilliant Miller [00:39:26] And I think we’d enjoy life a little more to. Right, so the better manyfold. And that’s not a word I get to use in conversation.
Mike Finkel [00:39:33] So thank you. Yeah.
Brilliant Miller [00:39:35] Well in that. I love to what Chris said about Thoreau throws a dilatant wind after reading your book, I, I tend to agree so.
Mike Finkel [00:39:51] Well, he’s also a brilliant writer. I tried to read I think I was too young the first time I might have been assigned it in high school. So for those of you who were maybe tried to read Waltin, I didn’t get very far the first time in the second time it blew me away. And so I recommend you come back to it. But I thought it was Chris Knight, the hermit. I just this is a person I just I guess what happens if you spend twenty seven years alone, this sort of what I call the I call it dinner party politeness, because no matter how good or bad a meal tastes, you tell the host that it was delicious, of course. And if it’s alive, well, that’s a fine. That’s a dinner party. But you can tell my children they must always tell the truth except after dinner party when you tell them it was delicious or when someone asked how they look in those jeans, you say beautiful. Anyway, he lost that ability to white lie. And so he thought he thought that Henry David Thoreau was a dealer. As you said, he lived two years at his cabin on Walden Pond. His mother did his laundry. True. He had a dinner party with twenty people. And worst of all, he wrote a book bragging about this. And this is something Chris Knight, the Hermit, would never do, write a book. And so I found it. He made fun of me a lot. You know, he’s like, oh, look, you’re balding. My car and my son’s name is Becket’s. He’s like a terrible name. He’s going to hate you when you get older. It’s like and I kind of like loved it, like hate it because I’m thinking how many of my children I told them I did. My son Beckett, like all great name, but in thinking in the back of their head, terrible name. But he just came right out and you know, not everyone, not everyone’s going to be like grooved to that. But for some reason it made me like him all the more. And yeah, so and by the way, this came up to me, you mentioned briefly in passing that the if you don’t mind me skipping around is sort of a circle. I wanted to talk about the English, the the name of the the hermits that these English upper class decided to have on their large properties, which I love the steam ornamental hermit’s, ornamental hermit’s. By the way, there’s even a whole book on it. This is a true thing where people hired Hermit’s to live on their vast estates, usually in a cave, and they would come out and greet guests. I’m not kidding. They were like seven year contracts and the aristocracy for a while thought that Hermit’s radiated wisdom and peacefulness and that it was good to have one on your estate. Ornamental hermits, if you’re interested. I like your beard. I think you. I think you. I think beards were actually mandatory. A brilliant. So if this isn’t working out for you, I’m just saying you could bring back the you know, I can see it. Yeah. That is so great. And then we saw it.
Brilliant Miller [00:42:47] In the book that I just love something that were really deep and some things that were just simple and funny.
Mike Finkel [00:42:52] But such is life isn’t it. You’ve got to have both.
Brilliant Miller [00:42:54] That’s right. Well, before we before we transition. Oh, I do want to ask you this. What did you learn? About interviewing. That served you well. When you interviewed Chris, because I don’t know if people get this, if they picked it up from the conversation you talked about, Chris talk to you reluctantly, there were many people that he said no to. He said yes to you probably because of the handwriting and so forth. But there were some techniques that I think you touched on. You revealed not that they were like ploys or techniques or something, but how did you get him to open up? Like, what had you learned about interviewing before that served you? Well, and then my follow up question is, what did you learn about interviewing from interviewing him?
Mike Finkel [00:43:39] OK, so interviewing is definitely a an art or a skill. I mean, there are definitely people that are better conversationalists than others, and I think people that are drawn to journalism are just naturally not shy of talking to people. But for example, I know brilliance. How much you prepared for this interview. And I knew within five seconds I do several interviews and I know immediately one’s level of preparation. And so the secret of almost everything in life is secret preparation. Prepare. No one just comes out speaking beautiful French without a lot of work. I mean, I think about like Michael Jordan, almost all of his teammates, that he was the first one at the gym practicing. The guy that was the best was actually none of this stuff. Almost almost everyone that’s great or very good at what they’re doing spends a lot of time doing this. So I like my interviews to feel natural, but that takes a lot of preparation. And I bet you know what I’m talking about, really, because you are good at it. And so I prepare a lot. I read a lot. I don’t like to have a list of questions where I’m looking down and looking up. I like it to feel like a conversation. So I will prepare a lot. I will sometimes write 50 or 60 questions. And then I read that list and then I will leave that list in my car and I’m going to the jail and bring nothing with me but a bunch of curiosity and just see what happens. I don’t like sleep. Sometimes I sleep weirdly from one subject to another, but I want it to feel like a conversation. And also, as I’ve mentioned before, and as I mentioned again, I think almost everyone can sense someone is genuine or false. And when I’m talking to someone, I would say 90 percent of the time. So one in 10 times I’m just VSAN and false. But I’m genuinely interested in hearing what you have to say and that can’t be faked. So if you’re not as genuinely curious, open minded person, maybe journalism isn’t for you. But I even someone who’s like, as disgusting as a murderer or not just a murderer, like I mentioned, maybe murdered his kids not to give it away. He was guilty. And I thought so I still was curious genuinely, while also very much repulsed. And so I think there’s a genuine this that you can’t teach. And after that, there’s a lot of preparation. I think it takes a lot of effort to make it feel like it’s effortless. In fact, one of my favorite compliments that someone will give to me is some would be like, oh, you must have wrote that book really quickly because it just felt very natural and conversational. And I’m like, thank you, you know, and it takes a long time to make it feel like it didn’t take very long to write. That’s the dirty secret.
Brilliant Miller [00:46:21] Yeah, absolutely. Well, then there were some specific things that you talk about in the book about how you didn’t use these words, but like matching and mirroring and pacing and like when he would look past you and you would look past him and you would let the silence, you know, you would match his cadence and things like that. Did I mean, you you were aware of it enough to include parts of that? How much of that when you’re so you talked about your prep and you talked about, you know, leaving the notes in the car and things like that. But now you’re face to face in the moment. How do you build rapport with somebody, how do you how do you get them to open up? How do you encourage them or direct them and things like that? What what have you found that works? Well, what worked well with Chris?
Mike Finkel [00:47:00] Well, also, I think we should all know that human interactions and this is a Chris Knight, of course, is, as I mentioned, is an extreme outlier. And one of the reasons why he basically became a hermit is that he just couldn’t connect with other human beings that made him feel so uncomfortable. And one of the things that I think about is that human interaction right now, what we’re doing is complicated. It really is. It’s like a tennis game. Not only am I trying to come up with good responses and I like you know, I’m even thinking right now, I think my answers are too long and I’m hogging up too much of it. That’s actually going on in the back of my head. And I’m looking at you. Are you making a lot of gesticulations? Are you making this weird look that I’m making or are you looking at? Maybe I should stop with my head. So listen, I’m giving you ask me what’s going on, like, all these little things are going on in the background. And so I think it’s natural to try and mirror something like if you were sitting there and I suddenly started doing jumping jacks and calisthenics while we were talking, it would be very jarring. And so I think the first thing that anyone should know is that if you’re feeling like it’s complicated, then you’re right, it is complicated. And I do feel naturally that you should try and put someone at ease, especially if they’re talking about themselves. And so I notice with Chris Knight that we were very close to each other, but there was a piece of glass. He didn’t he didn’t want to meet my eyes. He looked over my shoulder and I decided, you know, I’ll take a look at his eyes briefly. But then I look over his shoulder and I remember the very, very, very first time. He just sat there quietly and I thought about his letters. You said he said almost exact quote, I don’t trust people that are uncomfortable with silence, but I’m going to tell you right now, I’m extremely uncomfortable. The silence is very uncomfortable. I am not one of those guys who, like, fills in spaces and conversations and end up saying something kind of dumb because I don’t really like it. I’m like, oh, I should just shut up. So I had to consciously. The equivalent of sitting on my hands, like biting my tongue very close to literally biting my tongue, I was like, I’m going to sit here in this silence because Chris Knight. Wants it, and, yeah, you’re right, there are like little cues mirroring and. You know, even the cadence of the other person’s voice, I tend to get really excited and speak loudly and have like lots of inflection waves. And I if the person who I’m speaking to is a kind of a flat voiced person, I try to mirror that. But also, again, out of politeness, I don’t want to be who I’m not. So, you know, again, we can really break this down to the nitty gritty. And the only thing I’m going to try and one of the nice things about getting older I’m in my 50s now is that I rather than feeling like, oh, my God, this is I, I screwed it up, it’s actually kind of a difficult thing to interact with somebody that you haven’t met. And so if you feel like you’ve screwed it up, I think that your. Being kind of perceptive like you, if you feel like you never screw up an interaction with someone, then you’re probably not a very perceptive person.
Brilliant Miller [00:49:58] Yeah, not not self-aware. Aware, right
Mike Finkel [00:50:01] this way around.
Mike Finkel [00:50:02] Put it on, OK. That, yeah,
Brilliant Miller [00:50:11] it human interaction is complicated, right, and I thought I think a lot about what Chris said about it’s hard to look at faces because there’s so much information there. You know, it’s really interesting.
Mike Finkel [00:50:23] It’s hard to look at my own face when I’m talking to you, this is like this new fangled thing. I’m like trying not to. And then I’m like I feel like I’m feeling all this crookedness in, like, you know, it’s mirror imaging. And so, like, I’m moving my head one way we can talk about this stuff. This is like new. I’m used to like doing doing interviews in person. The last year has sort of turned everything upside down to other people. Look at themselves or the other person when they’re on a video. I don’t know. It’s like, what do you look at?
Brilliant Miller [00:50:50] Yeah, it’s challenging. I find my goal is to look at the video or the person I’m speaking to, but then I realize there’s no eye contact. And in fact, it looks like it’s such a it’s so interesting. Is the weird seam, I think, of time. Right.
Mike Finkel [00:51:04] I’m trying to make eye contact with you and I feel like I sort of am, but it’s not clear. Yeah, I think it’s totally fair to talk about this. I mean, I think you mentioned at the outset of your show that there are people that are interested in being writers. And I think these are I never talk about this kind of stuff. It’s almost a little meta, but I like it, you know, conversation. Life is challenging and you’re going to mess up like. One hundred times a day, if you want to get to the nitty gritty and it’s all about sort of like getting past that in a weird way.
Brilliant Miller [00:51:36] Yeah, no doubt. I think the last thing I the last thing I know I want to ask you about related to something else might pop up, but it it’s it’s about when he talks with you about the lady of the woods, would you be willing to share what that conversation was like?
Mike Finkel [00:51:57] So, as mentioned, I began my relationship with Chris Knight, the the Hermit, by writing letters, then it progressed to visiting him in jail and we spent nine one hour jail visits and then he was released after seven months in jail. And then finally, after all this time, I visited him. In person, no letter writing, no jail at his home, he invited me to visit him and we stood outside under a lilac tree that was just blooming. And so the smells were beautiful. It was spring in Maine. Spring comes very late and very powerfully so. Everything felt like Hypercolor. The green was very green and flowers for flowering. And I had gotten the impression that Chris Neitz, who’s a true survivor, was thriving because that is what his basically his counselor said and his lawyer said, and he was telling me his life story in jail, but wasn’t really telling me about his present situation. I don’t think he felt comfortable doing so in jail. And so we went and we met in his backyard and he told me that he was struggling mightily and that the. Good face that he had put up in jail and to his therapist and lawyer was really a false front and that he felt that the reason why he escaped the world was that he felt like a square peg being pounded into a round hole. And now here he was twenty seven years later, literally living with his mother, a person who had never done drugs, forced to do drug testing, basically a system that wasn’t built for an outlier. He was being forced in there. And I felt at this moment, now this is a person who spoke to nobody and this is about as open. As a human can be, and then he even got further open, he said that he was really he was going to commit suicide. He was going to kill himself. He really he he had been breaking into people’s houses. He spent seven months in jail. And his terms of his probation was that if he was ever caught again, he would spend seven years in prison. And he’s not a natural law breaker. And so he wasn’t going to break the law, but basically he was forbidden to do the only thing that made him happy in the world was living alone in the woods. He couldn’t hunt and fish for a living. Mean is way too difficult. And so he felt trapped that he would either have to suffer in society or face seven years in prison and he saw no way out of it and was going to commit suicide. He said that one time when he was extremely. Cold, hungry, and at the depth of sort of winter that he almost died in the woods and he had a vision or not, that, you know, you think about death as a the anthropomorphic physician of death is like a guy with a scythe. Anyway, he had a female version of this that he called the lady of the Woods. He said he was in his tent freezing, starving, right at the depth of cold late in his twenty seven years and had this again. He’s still not sure if it’s real or not. As you mentioned before, this is a person who is not formally religious. He doesn’t have a formal religion, but that’s what he said. He said he was going to walk again with the lady in the woods. So he had seen this vision of. Death and got very close to it, and even a person who’s highly logical, which Chris is like, he’s the person who’s like, you know, if you can’t prove it to me, I won’t believe it, which is why he’s not religious, said that he to this day couldn’t tell you whether the lady of the woods is real or not. I really actually kind of I kind of like that. So anyway, the story came up with him when he was being his most open with me. And I do think about the lady of the woods myself. Not that I have any intention of committing suicide, but I thought I thought it was a very beautiful and poetic and powerful way to speak. And when I think about the lady that was I think about it was the moment that I was able to have a really true soulful moment with Chris Knight. And then he closed back up soon afterwards. But I will never forget that.
Brilliant Miller [00:56:15] Yeah, that was a part that was particularly that was a part that was particularly touching when I said I cried, it was it was that and that feeling of being trapped and. And if I may, the way you wrote it, I thought was so profound that this paragraph. Chris says he’s seen the lady of the woods before during a very bad winter. His food was finished, his propane used up, and the cold was unrelenting. He was in his bed, in his tent, starving, freezing, dying. The lady appeared. She was wearing a hooded sweater, a feminine grim reaper. She lifted an eyebrow and lowered her hood. She asked if he was going with her or staying. He says he’s aware on an intellectual level that it was just some fever, desperate hallucination. But he’s still not entirely sure. Just. And then to say that he’s going to go find her again, right, that’s the method of suicide. It’s not it’s not going to hang himself. It’s not going to shoot himself. He’s going to go be with the lady of the woods and. Wow. So I don’t mean to ruin anything, though.
Mike Finkel [00:57:17] It’s beautiful. In fact, again, when you were reading that, I was thinking thank you, Chris, again, because really I would love to take credit for a lot of that. But that’s really just the way he spoke. I really just channeled his words. I don’t think it’s a direct quote, but really that’s basically the way he told me the story. And this why I feel blessed to have a job that I do, because you can’t really get to meet someone like Chris Knight unless you’re really willing to spend, like, a couple of years doing it. And nobody could afford to spend a couple of years doing that unless there are lucky enough to be a journalist. So even when you were reading it back and maybe it made me it made me really miss Miss Chris Knight, as I as I mentioned, he’s a true hermit. He didn’t want to be my friend. And I would welcome a letter from Chris Knight any day. But the way the deal that we left was, you would tell me his story. And when he was finished, I would go on my way. And he said, if you ever wanted to get in touch, you would get in touch. And it’s been a couple of years and he hasn’t. And I can’t I I respect that entirely. And I will never knock on his door uninvited again or at all. Yeah, but I’ll take an invitation, Chris.
Brilliant Miller [00:58:21] Well, you mentioned earlier that your next book project is about it’s also about a criminal. And there’s also been some correspondence. But why tell us, if you will, a little bit about this next project and why you’ve why you’ve decided to devote so much of your time and energy to this?
Mike Finkel [00:58:38] Yeah. Once again, I think for people out there that are interested in writing, I think one of the UN not saying unteachable, but one of the skills that are sort of uncelebrated is picking a topic. I’m not sure if anybody has a how to pick a topic class. And certainly nobody taught me one. And I just think, as I said, I’m curious about many, many, many things. But when it comes to as you so I almost felt a little bit of pressure. Brilliant. When you say like you’re putting years on this, you know, I but you’re right. i am. I’m doing a lot of eggs in one basket. I’m not making money for quite a while. And I have a have a family that I’m supporting. So yes, I. I can’t say with scientific reasoning why a subject grabs me, it’s all it’s very emotional, but one of the some of it let’s just get down to some of the nitty gritty, which is, first of all, the person that I’m interested in has to be willing to to talk to me if if if if I write them a letter and they say no thank you or don’t respond that I’m not writing about them. And that does happen. You don’t you’re not reading a book about my failures because they’re failures. And they just like I said to a lot of work, goes into the background that you don’t see. There are a lot of failures that you don’t that I’m not talking about here on your show. But I had again, I had followed this story for a better part of a decade, which is about a man who was stealing artwork from museums in Europe. He’s French. And I happened to speak French. So it was a good advantage for me and again, for people out there who are thinking about being journalists. Think about advantages that you have. Like if you are expert in knowing about geology, then you could interview a geologist more readily than I could anyway. So he doesn’t speak. She speaks French. And so we interviewed I interview him in French, but he stole our and put it on the wall of his. What I’m going to say how he lived with his mother. He was a waiter and broke and he had he lived in the attic of his mother’s house and ended up having I’m not going to exaggerate here. Some people estimated as two billion dollars worth of art. Now, if you go looking for art thieves and you find someone who broke into ten different museums in their career, ten, that is about as much as you’ll find in history, except for the guy I’m writing about who broke into more than two hundred different museums in his career. So, again, like Chris Knight, an extreme outlier, but. The real true reason that I’m writing about him is that he stole not for money, which ninety nine percent of the seal he stole for love and is like in like has this crazy, cockamamie, beautifully illogical theory about esthetics, about love, about about attraction to objects and people, and put these pieces of art in his attic. And I’m going to say the word worship them for a second Draupadi, come up with a better one, but really like love them in a way that is in audience, loved these pieces. And I don’t usually like being a tease, but I’m still working on this project. So I’m going to say is what happens in the end? You’ll never guess. And it’s shocking. Wow.
Brilliant Miller [01:02:15] When will it release?
Mike Finkel [01:02:18] Well, I’m working on it. So let’s say the summer of next. Not this summer. Twenty twenty one. That’s go for about a year, a year and a half from now. Takes a little while for things to widen their way up. I’m a little late on a deadline, so brilliant. Stop it. You’re making me feel a little pressure here. I should actually get off of this interview and write the next sentence, but we’ll stay for the time being. I’m a little late. I feel a little pressure and I’m sort of this tug of war between speed and quality. And, you know, you can’t just spend I personally cannot spend 20 years writing a book. I can’t afford that. And so writing for four people that are out there is not. My wife is a mathematician and I’m jealous of her because when you do a math problem correctly, it’s just done. You can give me every paragraph I’ve ever written. You give me a couple of weeks, I’ll make it a little bit better. So there’s never perfection. And I want it all to be perfect. And, you know, I live with the knowledge that I am pursuing perfection. It’s just like interacting with another person. Brilliant. I’m sure when I’m done with this, I will think about one hundred things I should have told you in a little more succinct and not so hugging of my time and so self-criticism and again, everyone self-critical in their own way. And it’s also not bad to be self-critical and also let it go, because I’m coming with you with full intention to give you my best. And I if I fail, well, then I apologize, but I have no intention to do it.
Brilliant Miller [01:03:51] Thank you. What is the working title for for the new book?
Mike Finkel [01:03:57] I think we’re calling it The Master Thief as a masterpiece with a master thief. And I really get as Chris Knight the hermit, not so much the murderer, but as with Chris Knight, he’s sort of a of someone who is hard to like. And I like him.
Brilliant Miller [01:04:14] I love it. OK, well, with your permission, I want to go ahead and transition us to the enlightening lightning round.
Mike Finkel [01:04:24] Im a little scared about this, let’s do it.
Brilliant Miller [01:04:26] No pressure. All right. How are you doing?
Mike Finkel [01:04:30] Yeah, I feel great. Thank you so much. This is transitioning between my workday and my relaxation.
Brilliant Miller [01:04:35] Awesome. Or get OK coming down the stretch. So, again, this is a series of questions on a variety of topics. You’re welcome to answer as long as you want. My aim, for the most part, is to ask the question and stand aside. Might ask you to elaborate here and there, but that’s the design. So question number one, please complete the following sentence with something other than a box of chocolates. Life is like a….
Mike Finkel [01:05:04] Man let’s see. I’m trying to answer this with something good you’ve got me already. I can’t believe it. I’ve, like, failed already. It’s like. I was like, I’m going to give you something here, you have to give me a second here. I don’t even like life is like a box of chocolates, by the way, I think that’s almost a little bit too easy. But one of the advantages of being a writer is that you’re not on the spot. You get to think and cogitate for a while and you come up with this brilliant line. But it’s like your 15th draft is entirely like this. I’m picturing this like. I’ve just been studying the human brain for a while, and neurons, like everything, branches out into like a million things and like every single choice opens up into another life. I’m just sort of picturing this like you ever seen, like a field of lightning where every choice cracks into another life is life is infinitely complex, but you have to choose one path through it.
Brilliant Miller [01:06:18] Okay, thank you. Question number two. Here, I’m borrowing the technologists and investor Peter Tial’s famous question, what important truths do very few people agree with you on?
Mike Finkel [01:06:40] I believe that everybody has a fascinating story to tell, and nobody, if you ask the right questions, is really boring.
Brilliant Miller [01:06:54] Okay, thank you. I tend to agree with you on that, by the way. Question number three, if you were required every day for the rest of your life to wear a T-shirt with a slogan on it or phrase or saying or quote or quip, what would the shirt say?
Mike Finkel [01:07:09] Let’s go with. If in doubt, the answer is yes. I love it.
Brilliant Miller [01:07:19] Awesome, thanks. Okay, question number four, what book, what book other than one of your own have you gifted or recommended most often?
Mike Finkel [01:07:35] I like to, um. I gift the book, I like short stories for people who have mediocre attention spans. I love the book Birds of America, which has nothing to do with Birds of America by Lorrie Moore. A collection of short stories that every single one of them pierced my heart. And when I was dating my now wife, I gave her that book and she said it pierced her heart. And I knew that. That was Birds of America by Lorrie Moore, which most of you haven’t read. It’s really beautiful. Awesome.
Brilliant Miller [01:08:09] Thank you. OK, question number five. This one’s about travel. So you’ve traveled around the world as we’ve discussed. What’s one thing you do when you travel one travel hack, something you take with you or something you do that makes your travel less painful or more enjoyable?
Mike Finkel [01:08:24] Well, so my daughter just gave me this haircut, but I have a long tradition of getting a haircut. Almost everywhere I travel I find it to be. So I go to the most local place possible. Think about this, a haircut. It’s like someone, a stranger puts their hand on your head and you have.
Brilliant Miller [01:08:46] It’s pretty intimate.
Mike Finkel [01:08:47] It’s intimate, and you have to talk to that person even if you don’t have three words in common. And there’s going to be locals around staring at you because you’re sitting in the chair and usually tourists don’t go there. I love to get my haircut. It is like it’s better than going to a bar late at night. It’s just like it’s it’s tourist. Don’t do that. I don’t care what my hair looks like. I’m halfway bald anyway. You can it’s not really like you’re not going to mess it up. And I always meet someone. It’s daring to sit in that chair. There’s a razor at your throat. You know, I love getting my haircut. I will learn it’s relaxing too, because if my accent’s terrible, the barber doesn’t freaking care what my accent sounds like. He’s going to laugh and I’m going to laugh. He’s going to be five new words. I’m going learn some great swear words. And I’m going up and I’m going to ask where the locals go. And he’s going to tell me. And next thing I know, my trip is started. I love getting my hair cut when I travel.
Brilliant Miller [01:09:40] That is awesome. All right. Question number six. What’s one thing you’ve started or stopped doing in order to live or age? Well.
Mike Finkel [01:09:49] Oh, this is a good question. I stopped playing ice hockey, I love ice hockey, but I’m fifty two years old and I’m not really that coordinated or big and I’m playing with guys that are literally half my age. And I had to stop to be able to feel like I was getting into a car crash twice a week. So I stopped playing ice hockey and I can almost barely watch ice hockey because you have things in life where you’re, like, not that good at, but you love. It’s really relaxing because I’m not that good at hockey and I love I love ice hockey. It’s like when when I was reading Harry Potter to my children, I never read Harry Potter when I was a kid. I was too old, but I read it to my children out loud. They were talking about Quidditch and I realized that Quidditch for me is ice hockey. You can go like three times faster than you can run. You could stop on a dime. You could you could go backwards. I’m a good skater. I’m just kind of not that coordinated or big. So I just quit hockey as a realization that I’m a little too old to play rough and tumble hockey and my knees are messed up with answers. Your question? Ice hockey. I’m sad about it still.
Brilliant Miller [01:10:57] And I think I read that you do love to run long distance, but I think one of your social media posts talked about your knees are shot.
Mike Finkel [01:11:05] Yes, I would like to thank the portion of my body below my neck for putting up with me. The upper part is still working fairly well, but the lower part was abused by the upper part. So I was very curious about the limits of human endurance when I was in my twenties and I decided that I would be my own laboratory and I wanted to again, I’m not really a talented athlete at all. I’m just I like to call myself sporty, sporty. I’m like, enthusiastic. Anyway, I wanted to see if I could run one hundred miles in one day that these hundred mile runs four marathons, but it’s up and down mountains, so it’s really much harder than four marathons in one day. And I wanted to do it in under twenty four hours. And usually I don’t pat myself on the back for my own athletic achievements, but I’m going to right now. I ran one hundred miles in twenty three hours and forty eight minutes and effed up my knees quite badly. I’ve run well since then but it was like this incredible experience where I was, I went like so you know, by the way, people out there. So if you get tired and they get really tired, then you get exhausted, then you get super exhausted, then you get super, insanely exhausted and then. You feel like a deity, either something deep, deep, deep in there, you feel like bone, and I reached it. It was great. It was crazy.
Brilliant Miller [01:12:31] What is incredible? What was the event?
Mike Finkel [01:12:35] It was the Western states one hundred mile run. It takes place in California each year. I actually had to run 50 miles to qualify for it. And it was you run all through the night, you get to have a pacer. My younger sister, my only sibling is really accomplished athlete. She’s the athlete in the family. She ran the last thirty eight miles, but the people get they hallucinate run off the course and so you and you’re in the woods at night. So she guided me. But you have to carry your own water and food. I’m not going to cheat in one hundred miles. You only doing it for yourself. But she was with me and yeah it was, it was a it was soulful experience. But yes, that’s the reason why I’m a little bad for you. It’s bad for your body. It’s like some sort of overdose on drugs. But I overdosed on running.
Brilliant Miller [01:13:17] That is hardcore.
Mike Finkel [01:13:19] Only a little ridiculous. Yeah.
Brilliant Miller [01:13:23] Just on the Harry Potter thing for a moment too. I also I didn’t read it when I was younger, but I read it last year during the pandemic to my girls who were thirteen and eight. And we read the whole thing out loud and it took the better part of a year. That’s amazing that we did the same thing. And you know that that is I looked it up. It’s just over a million words. I think it’s a million. Seventy four thousand words.
Mike Finkel [01:13:46] Yeah. I’m not I’m certainly not going to do any literary criticism when it comes to Harry Potter. But maybe if you’re like me, I really like reading out loud. I really do. In fact, I can. This is I don’t I wonder if I’ve ever said this in an interview. So one of the things I do with my own writing is read it out loud to myself. And sometimes my family is outside my office door. There’s five of us in a relatively modest house and they hear it. And I’m I’m not shy about it. Like, I feel that if the like, I will find like little like what I call Splinter’s, where it’s just like you, your voice stutters and sometimes even two words that have a similar sound that you didn’t notice it when you were just reading silently. I read everything. I write out loud. Even when I’m crazy, I’m feeling it’s wrong. I will tape, record it and play it back and find mistakes. So anyway, how beautiful that you also read everybody. I read every word out loud. In fact, to my daughter. I have books that I read with everyone is a little one on one, but yeah, every page of the seven volumes. And that was a that’s the perfect way to encounter Harry Potter if you’re over the age of 18 or something like that. So. All right, that’s cool. I can talk to you about this for a while. Not the actual books, but the actual interaction with your child about sharing something like that is I find that touching. Yeah. So I know exactly what you did. That’s great, man.
Brilliant Miller [01:15:06] Yeah, it was fun. A lot of great vocabulary in those books, too.
Mike Finkel [01:15:09] Good vocabulary. Just like references like should we break out the sorting hat. It’s like, like you can make like you can like take things from the books and bring them, you know, it’s just like how many Shakespeare expressions like have sort of like leached into the language. You know, there’s Harry Potter, there’s an entire generation that read that book. And so it’s like if you don’t if you don’t know what Raven Claw is, then you’re like a little too old. I didn’t know for houses where until I read them. So I’m kind of like there’s a lot of, like, little Harry Potter references. Any modern sitcom today. We’ll throw in a Harry Potter reference, as, of course, you know it. And I’m like, I’m feeling. But I know that.
Brilliant Miller [01:15:42] The Muggles at least or something.
Mike Finkel [01:15:45] Or mud bloods, muggles, anything.
Brilliant Miller [01:15:48] It’s awesome. OK, question number six, um seven. Question number seven. What’s one thing you wish every American knew?
Mike Finkel [01:15:57] I wish every American knew how to speak another language. Why was the lightning round? I finally got off lightly about it. Well, I didn’t actually speak another language until five years ago, so it’s not like I’m bragging on anything because, wow, it’s just, you know, there’s travel, right? There’s travel. And then there’s, you know, I mentioned going to a barbershop, but I’m talking about like, you learn another language and then suddenly you can really learn about another culture and world. And now, yes, we can go to England and speak English. But really, it is so nice to learn another language changes. It requires your brain a little bit. And, you know, I read about four books saying that after the age of 17, you can’t learn another language. And after the age of 40, forget it. And I started French at forty five and my French is bad, but it’s pretty damn good. Bad and I can go to a dinner party and speak French and make jokes. I’m freakin fluent. I’m proud of myself. It was very difficult and it changed my brain and opened up like a whole nother thing. There is just no way if you force a French person to speak English that you really, truly get to know them. And so I think it is wonderful.
Brilliant Miller [01:17:15] Yeah, that’s awesome. What a great answer, and I love that. What’s the question number eight, what’s the most important or useful thing you’ve ever learned about making relationships work?
Mike Finkel [01:17:31] I’m going to answer this one, we’re listening. Listening, listening. Listen, listen, I think the secret of being a journalist is to listen, you’re interviewing me and I’m like very conscious of hogging this up because I’m used to being the person who speaks less and ninety seven percent of the time except for in these situations. And I’m uncomfortable or at least conscious, which means uncomfortable of speaking more. I like to listen someone who’s trying to show off feeling like this. Listen, you know, even if you totally disagree with someone and they’re completely wrong, which, by the way, happens all the time in my house, there’s a reason why they’re saying that. So, listen, you don’t just dismiss it. Yeah, the words might be crazy, but there’s a reason why they’re coming out of this person’s mouth. Might it be at my child or my wife or someone that I have an intricate relationship with? And anyway, just listen and then react. Just take it. Listen. Awesome.
Brilliant Miller [01:18:43] And question number nine. Aside from compound interest, what’s the most important thing you’ve ever learned about money?
Mike Finkel [01:18:50] What’s the most important thing I’ve learned about money, as you say? Well, it’s kind of like, you know, running. It’s kind of like running a race. You know, you can be like it could be like nine hundred people behind you, but you’re only looking at the ten people in front of you. Someone’s always going to have more of it. There’s never enough. I used to be like very say, I’m used to be a little bit I would say cheap, but like, I got a little money. You want to hold onto it. Money actually doesn’t do anything for you. It’s what you can. By with it, it’s the most important thing I’ve learned about money. Spend some of it not wisely.
Brilliant Miller [01:19:36] Spend some of it not wisely?
Mike Finkel [01:19:38] You’re saying not wisely. Yeah, yeah. Blow some of the Yeah. Like gamble or just buy something. Just some of it. Some of it not wise to give away 10 percent and blow 10 percent. The other 80 percent, you can be very cautious about 10 percent donate 10 percent spend unwisely. I think you’re going to really remember that unwatched 10 percent also the donation of 10 percent to I like that’s the 20 percent that’s important. The 80 percent that’s paying your bills and your mortgage ho-hum, the donations and that unrighteousness spend some of it unwisely.
Brilliant Miller [01:20:09] What’s an example of how you like a specific example of how you’ve spent money unwisely or an example of how you do?
Mike Finkel [01:20:20] I mean, this is not unwisely, you know, I’m living in France right now and I don’t like reading books on a Kindle and so I can get a book on a Kindle that I’m interested in like 10 seconds for twelve dollars. But instead I’ll spend fifty dollars, twenty five of which is for postage to get it mailed to me so I can read it on paper. And I don’t feel like that’s a waste, but I like to read books on paper sometimes with a hardcover. And can I get it cheaper. Yeah. Is it exactly the same words. Yeah. But I find it, it fulfills me a little more and therefore it’s not a waste. We’re in France. You can buy you can buy an expensive cheese. Why not. You don’t have to know some things. Just, just you know, I’m not trying to sound like someone who’s well off, although I am certainly blessed, but. I think those are the things you’ll remember just to just to see if there’s something that sort of like inefficiency, we have a little joke in my family when it comes to this. Money is like because three children and wife and moving countries and continents, sometimes my my wife will be searching for something to be like. Wait, wait, Mike, I found a less efficient way to do this. Know, I found I found a more ridiculous way to do this. So sometimes literally I found a more expensive way to do it. Stop, stop. There’s a more expensive way to do this, sort of by little our little family joke, because vacations get expensive and you get five people and everyone’s going. So, you know, that’ll be OK. Don’t do that. It’s a more expensive way. So I think humor sends, I think, humor also. By the way, you didn’t ask this question. I just think a sense of humor is so important because life can be completely absurd. In fact, is. And again, if you are blessed with good health, once you’re feeling sick, it’s so hard to have a sense of humor if you’re blessed with good health. And I can’t tell someone have a good sense of humor. And I have plenty of friends that are depression, clinical depression. So I’m also blessed not to have that. But I love someone just. Man, if you can make a joke about almost anything, it’s such a nice way to go about like a little levity. Almost like makes my day, my life, my week, yeah. A little levity, I didn’t ask, but I answered it anyway.
Brilliant Miller [01:22:54] And lot up for me when you share that. And I know that your money is one of these areas where. It’s often a source of conflict in relationship, right, money, sex, parenting, in-laws. There’s these common themes. But if your family is able to laugh about these inefficiencies or whatever and make light of that, what a gift. You know, like what a gift that you’re giving each other instead of letting it be a point of conetention.
Mike Finkel [01:23:19] Brilliant, I like how open you are to about your family’s money and where it came from. In fact, if I can be so bold, I you know, I was talking to my friends about the show I was going on before and I was speaking about your family and how open you are on your on your website about it and how, you know, you’re talking about your father, like, literally working himself to death and just reading again, what happens when you have a journalist on the show they’re going to poke around and listen to I really love your show. I feel like I feel like I have. That’s the reason why I’m feeling pressure, because some of your guests are so fascinating and I feel a little unnerved. So but I really did. That was the point of I had a whole conversation with my children about money because of you. And so I feel like you have a lot to say. I guess that’s the journalist in you when you ask that question. I was like, I really wanna hear from brilliant about this.
Brilliant Miller [01:24:09] Yeah, well, my dad definitely had a set of lessons that he taught us formally and there’s like five, you know, with him it was decide what is sufficient for your needs. So he would say make that as a conscious thing. And that led to the next one. He said almost all of us are fortunate that as we get older, our incomes increase. He said be careful not to let your your expenses match your increasing income. I can be very deliberate about it. So that was a second. He would he would pair that with where much is given, much is required, quoting scripture about you have a responsibility, as your saying, to to share with others. So he would talk about that. And then he had this view. I love the way he’d say this, that money is nothing but numbers on paper and a tool for doing good. That was what that was the way he looked at it. And and I think that’s not just something he’s he talked about but but how he lived. So those were definitely some things. And, yeah, money is a fascinating thing, right? It’s a currency. He didn’t he didn’t use these terms. But a friend of mine, actually, my very first guest who wrote the book, The Soul of Money, Lin Twist, she talks about it’s not a coincidence that money is that we call it currency. Right. In anything, whether it’s water or it’s vegetables or other food. If you hoard it and it stagnates, it decays. But when you let it flow, that’s when you know it works best in our lives. And I thought that was an interesting, really interesting reciprocity, you know? So then it gets into some kind of metaphysical realms. Perhaps money is energy, money is agreements, you know, this kind of thing. But I do want to just say one one thing, too, on what you said about humor, a couple of things that came up for me when you were sharing. First I heard once I didn’t hear this directly in an interview or something, but I heard once that when the Dalai Lama was asked, what’s the most important attribute in a spiritual teacher, his reply was a sense of humor. So right in line with what you’re saying. And then and then I did have the good fortune to go to a program Wayne Dyer hosted shortly before he passed on. And he pointed out that the opposite of what did he say? He talked about dark and light, but also heavy and light and how lightness when we bring that lightness in that levity, you know, that it really does in some kind of maybe metaphysical way. Again, both dispel darkness, but also the heaviness that life can have, the responsibility and the burden and all of that. So I just love that that you have that as part of your your family culture and part of the way you see the world, I thought, for what it’s worth, I thought it was pretty cool.
Mike Finkel [01:26:40] No, I was saying that I was actually thinking one of the most wonderful things in the world. And this might be cheesy, but it is like laughter. Laughter. What a great thing. Just think about it. You just, like, make this crazy sound that comes out of your mouth and when it’s a risk, but it’s something truly funny. And like, everyone’s just basically you’re basically all screaming together in a room. It’s like really beautiful. Laughter. There’s nothing else like it. And so when I’m with my friends and we laugh, that is the best thing. So if you can if you can make someone laugh, I think. That’s like second to sex in terms of intimacy, like you can make someone left, that’s extremely rare. Luckily, I’m able to make a few people laugh. I’m a little funny looking, so maybe I’m just I’m just saying it’s important because I could do it all right. If I was really like a Lothario, I had great hair, I’d be like, the most important thing is dancing in a club. Anyway, I’m going to go with an awesome thank you.
Brilliant Miller [01:27:40] OK, well, this the end of the enlightening lightning round. The the way that I’ll wrap this up on this portion, the last part very, very near the end here. Just we’ll talk about writing and creativity for a few minutes. But before we do, just want to share with you that. And speaking of money, I’ve made one hundred dollar Kiva microloan on your behalf to a woman entrepreneur named Nergal. And she will use this money to buy dairy cows with the aim of increasing her income by selling organic milk. She actually owns two cows, 15 sheep, two horses, and she is located. All is in. Kerzakhstan, of all places, somewhere I’ve never been to ever been, to Kazakhstan, to Stans?
Mike Finkel [01:28:27] Several of the stones, but not into Kazakhstan and Kazakhstan. No, I’ve been to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan when I was covering the the Afghanistan, another Stan war, when it got a little hot, you would have to escape to one of the other stans, which was like to have a breather. That sounds great. So Khiva is the is the what would you call it, the website. The company?
Brilliant Miller [01:28:52] It is a nonprofit. They’re based in San Francisco. They’re it was founded by a couple of Stanford, I believe they were MBA students about nearly 20 years ago. They had worked. One of them I think had worked with Muhammad Yunus when he earned the Nobel Prize for microfinance. You know, I love that. And so the cool thing about this to me is that this will help this helps entrepreneurs become self-sufficient. So it’s not charity with strings attached. Instead, it trusts that they have the knowledge and the capability to to improve the quality of their lives. And then when interest is repaid, it doesn’t come to me. It goes to the field partner who facilitates the loan. So then is a virtuous cycle, not just for the entrepreneur, but also for the people who make loans to others in that part of the world.
Mike Finkel [01:29:37] You know, the journalist with the pen and paper. So I’ve done it that down. I’m looking forward to taking a look at that. I think I might double this this donation. I’m going to go. I’m pledging that right now. Send me the information. And now she’s getting two hundred dollars.
Brilliant Miller [01:29:50] That is so great. I will do it. I will send it off. Awesome. OK, so the last part of the interview is, as I mentioned, about writing and creativity. And we’ve already talked about some of these things. The place I want to start is with this question about when did you first know you were a writer and how did you know?
Mike Finkel [01:30:12] Yes, so this is a little bit of an annoying answer, because I speak to a lot of people, my friends included. That’s. All their lives aren’t sure what they want to be when they grow up, so I’m just going to go with the annoying part, which is that I really have wanted to be a writer for a really, really long time. My mother showed me a journal I kept at age 10 who says this at age 10, where I said I wanted to be a writer. And by the way, I also said that if that didn’t work out, I want you to be, quote, a mad scientist. So I’m really lucky that for some reason and there’s no writers in my family, I just I love to read so much. Kind of like there’s also another story in my family. Again, a little bit annoying where the English teacher told my parents that your son reads too much because I don’t really like discussing things. So I would like to sit in back of the English class while they were discussing, say, Romeo and Juliet. And I would put another book in front of the Shakespeare and just be reading that instead of participating. I really like to read and I wanted to write for a long time. I was at my high school newspaper and then my college newspaper and then after that and I thought it would be fiction. And so the only surprise that came was that I really found myself attracted to telling true stories with creativity, because I truly love to travel so much and meet people. And as I said at the outset, you know what you should try and do for a living? Try start that and start that as your as your goal is what you love to do and would do if money wasn’t an object, wouldn’t it be nice to make that your job? And so I always thought I would become a novelist and I write nonfiction and have found that to be really fulfilling. So for a long time, awesome.
Brilliant Miller [01:32:06] Who has been influential in your development as a writer and what have you learned from them?
Mike Finkel [01:32:12] Well, this is a sort of a category that doesn’t get mentioned enough by writers, editors. Wow, what an art. So it’s I am a bad editor. And what I mean by that is, you know, a lot of people think, oh, you’re right, or you read my stuff. And so when I read someone’s stuff, I’m like, how would I’ve written that? Which, by the way, is terrible if you’re an editor, because that’s not what an editor says. An editor’s like, oh, how can Mike write that in the best to the best of his ability? I have been helped by several fantastic editors when I my first ever job in journalism was at Skiing magazine because I know how to ski even bad knees and all. And there was an editor there named Paul Prince and he was just a brilliant editor. And like Saul, where I was showing off and saw where I was like saying something in ten lines that should have just been given one line and just taught me about flow. And I took a red pen fearlessly. And just like said, this is terrible. Rewrite it. And again, like, if you’re the type of person who wants to improve themselves, you have to be able if you’re getting paid for it, it’s the big leagues. You have to. That’s part of the deal anyway. Great editors are the secret to good writing. And I’ve had I’ve been blessed to have like three or four brilliant editors, and they’re few and far between. So if you can find them, stay with them. Even if it’s like jet skiing magazine, I would I was actually offered a job at Sports Illustrated and turned it down. I stayed at skiing magazine because I wanted to be edited by this guy and he made me a better writer. Wow.
Brilliant Miller [01:33:52] Well, obviously, experience working with someone can help you confirm whether or not they’re a good editor or a good editor for you. But before you enter into a working relationship, how can you know that someone is going to be a good editor?
Mike Finkel [01:34:09] I’m wondering if this applies to everyone. Well, I can answer it for myself, so when I’m writing, I’m like, oh, I wonder if that line is opaque or not clear. I wonder if that word is a little to show off and then three seconds to be like that line is not clear. And that words to show off them like shit. That little voice basically echoes the voice in your head, like all your like all your little fears that you think you’re going to cover it up. They know it right away. So that’s my little test. Like, Oh, you’re right. I knew it. I knew it and I could see it and then goes from there that he’s like and also like, you know, this is repetitive. This character is not important. And you got to stop quoting this person who’s saying, you know, so it starts out with like they echo the little voice of uncertainty in your head and confirm it in a little way. So it’s like, oh, you change the word know. So that’s my litmus test, is that my little they are like, oh, did you crawl into my head and were you that you know. So that’s my test for.
Brilliant Miller [01:35:14] Right on. What is one in some of the most important what are some of the most important tools or technologies that you use as a writer?
Mike Finkel [01:35:25] I write on a computer. I never really I grew up in the transition from paper to computer. Yeah. I like a digital recorder. I mean, I really I feel like, you know, I’ve got people that are in, like film and photo and like they’re really high tech. I’m not really that high tech. I use a thesaurus more than most people just to check when I’m like sort of like really fine tuning, like look up like the most random words strong, just like I know a lot of synonyms for. I just like to sort of see I don’t really think that writing needs very many true tools, but I like writing on a computer because unlike paper, you could look if you have like a weird idea, like, what if I change all these paragraphs and delete all the stuff, you just save it as it is and then do all that really quick and then see how it see how it goes. It didn’t work at all and then write back that quickly. So that way you get to like experiment with all the weird iterations. As I repeated earlier, said earlier, I try and make my writing feel very natural and conversational, but it does actually take me quite a lot of drafts to do this. I will actually say I think this is probably like I will always do 20 drafts of something in writing, that’s a two zero 20 drafts where it’s…
Brilliant Miller [01:37:06] Literally 20 drafts. Sure, sure.
Mike Finkel [01:37:10] Wow. Yeah. So I’ve changed. I move to things like it doesn’t come out beautifully at all the first time. You know,
Mike Finkel [01:37:15] the funny thing is I freaking psyched myself out every time and it’s going to be perfect the first time and the 19th time maybe it is.
Brilliant Miller [01:37:22] Yeah. That comes to mind for me. Is that Oscar Wilde saying about I’ve been editing all day in the morning. I put a comma in and then I take it out.
Mike Finkel [01:37:31] Oh, I love Oscar Wilde, man. I love him. Like I feel he made me think about him because I think of Oscar Wilde too much because and then he makes me feel unworthy. I’m like dying. He’s so so I almost get mad. This is ask my children, what’s the reaction that your dad will have when he truly think something’s great? And just in terms of writing, OK, I get angry, so pissed. It’s so good. I can’t do this. Oscar Wilde actually makes me angry sometimes. I won’t read him because he makes me angry that I’m like, oh, I feel not very surmisal. This is actually another true story. I have like a bunch of really we’re not going to name names. A lot of them are romance novels of terribly written books that make me feel much better about myself. No, I’m not actually joking about this. I literally have some terrible books that for a while I got obsessed with Fabio, who was on the cover of Old Old School Fabio on the cover of romance novels. And so I just started collecting it as a joke. But then I started reading the books that Fabio was on the cover and I felt very good about my own writing. So the opposite of Oscar Wilde.
Brilliant Miller [01:38:40] That is so funny. I you know, we’ve all heard that saying who was. I want to say. I forget who said that I’m forgetting right now about comparison is the thief of Joy, he was a president, I believe. But at any rate, it’s funny that there are times where comparison can actually rob us of of our peace of mind or whatever. But then there’s other times what it’s incredibly useful. Like I remember listening to an interview with the comedian Greg forget his name right now, but he talked about the way he found the confidence to succeed in comedy was going to shows and seeing how bad other people sucked and went, well, I can do it so much better. So there are times where comparison is actually useful, I think.
Mike Finkel [01:39:20] So, again, you know, sometimes when people ask me, you know, I want to be a writer, but I don’t know how I feel like not that skilled, I’d be like, you know, I might be dating myself a little bit, but I’d be like, pick up a magazine on the newsstand and open it up and read that article. And when you do that, do you feel like you’re blown away? Like, no, they’re terrible. I’m like, there you go. You could be a writer. You know, most of them are not very good. Thank goodness. Would be terrible. If every single article was, like, brilliant, then you would feel terrible. Totally OK.
Brilliant Miller [01:39:50] But the question here is about time. How do you manage yourself through time, how do you structure your time as a writer to help you hit your deadlines?
Mike Finkel [01:40:06] Man, this is I am really poor with time, and I guess I guess I’m just discovering this right now during this interview. I just I don’t really want to be good with time, I’m just like right now, I was late getting on the show because I picked up my son. I kind of knew that it was going to be pushing things and I still did it. I felt like I, I my time zone has twenty five hours in each day. And it turns out that no matter how much I try and force it, there’s really only twenty four. I think I’m the the only thing I’m good at is making people who are bad with time feel. Like they have company, so don’t ask me any questions about how to do how to manage time, because I’m really poor at it, because I have a lot of interests and a lot of. When someone says they’re bored, I’m fascinated by that because I would like to be bored, because I’m I’m really tired of not being bored, like there’s so much to do with the world. I can read books that’s I could I could, you know, explore the world. I could hike. I could, you know, I could do like a hundred things. If there were 30 hours in a day, I still wouldn’t have enough time or 50 hours a day. So I’m terrible with managing time. I’m very fortunate to have a lot of enthusiasm for many things in the world, but. Well, I’m not myself, no compliments for management, I manage to get stuff done, some of it’s just out of pure fear. And by the way, let me just get back to one thing. When you were talking about your father’s advice about. I was thinking, number two, I believe, was something about like you don’t if you get if you’re making more, don’t don’t spend more or something like that. Yeah, I totally failed on that one. In fact, it’s even it’s even worse, which is that, you know, if this if this art thief book is already sort of half spent and I haven’t even written it, so if it’s not good, I’m screwed. And so so money management and time management go ask go ask a banker. Really, please don’t ask me.
Brilliant Miller [01:42:18] Well, it’s not, was it? Tony Robbins says that every life is an example or a warning.
Mike Finkel [01:42:24] And probably both.
Brilliant Miller [01:42:26] And many are both for sure. But this thing on time, I’m interested because I hear this what what occurs for me is a lot of self-criticism, a lot of judgment. But you still Steve Jobs said real a ship, right? You’re you’ve got books. You’ve got articles. You’re making a living doing it. So you’re doing something a single digit percentage of all writers are able to do. If you suck so bad with time, how is it that you manage to publish? I mean, you mentioned the word fear just a moment ago, but. But you ship how?
Mike Finkel [01:42:56] You think about the little I have, I guess I’m fortunate in that I’m sort of self-motivated. I’m certainly if I can compliment myself, I’m not lazy and I usually am very enthusiastic about a project. And by the way, when you’re slogging through a couple of your book, there’s going to be terrible weeks, days, even months. But I am motivated to finish it and I prioritize my rights ideally 13 out of 14 days. I feel like I can write only, so I don’t know and be impressed. I think really you can only do something great for three or four hours a day. I mean, really any more than that. So if I. So I try and be. As I’ve said to my wife and I mean this truthfully, I could ski half a day and work half a day and get more work done than if I just worked all day, which is true, because if I feel like if I exercise, if I have a moment of good father ship and then I get this four hour chunk, which I search for every day to work on my project, I really work so hard during those four hours. I’m like exhausted. I don’t think the brain can go hard for more than four hours. And so I try and take a seven hour work day and do it in four hours. I feel like there’s a little more to it than that. But really, I get the project done because I don’t mess around. And even if it’s going poorly, I sit my butt in the chair and I turn and you have to be sort of just because I’m bad at a time doesn’t mean I’m not dedicated or devoted. Like even when I ran that hundred miles, I trained every day, even if I was feeling bad. So I’m good at. I’m good at. Self motivation. Yeah, so there’s something in there I feel like a second draft of that will be better, but I do. I work every day pretty, pretty, pretty hard on the on my project and always. Yeah. And I feel like, you know, sort of this four hour thing is like is good because you’re not just working ten hours, you’re really going for it. And you know, I don’t know a lot of writers and how they work. It’s a little inside baseball thing. I, I hope what I’m saying might be helpful to some people, but if it’s not at all, that’s that’s fine. You know, it’s like I can’t think about like people that say they write a coffee shops that’s completely alien to me. There’s just no way to write that you can’t write in a coffee shop. Let’s just be honest, which is too much stuff going on. That’s just ridiculous. I reject that completely, but other people say they can.
Brilliant Miller [01:45:40] Yeah, I’m with you on that. And and in interviewing, so much comes up for me what you’re sharing. But we’ve seen that book, Daily Rituals by Mason Curry, how artists work.
Mike Finkel [01:45:51] I have not I’m a little nervous about it already, though.
Brilliant Miller [01:45:55] A lot of what you’re saying is really resonant with that because he does these profiles of some of them are scientists, actually. He goes back and there’s Benjamin Franklin and Darwin and but then he looks at others like Victor Hugo and Joseph Heller and many other luminaries, and he looks at how did they organize their lives, their time, how did they work. And it’s exactly what you’re saying, that it was a it was a smaller chunk of time, but it was something they were talented at, something they were passionate about. They did it over a period of decades. So it’s really interesting. And then and then the other thing about like working in coffee shops or whatever, that’s one thing that’s endlessly fascinating to me is how we all do have preferences and we do all have strengths and weaknesses and just figuring out even what those are and then working with our strengths instead of always trying to compensate for our weaknesses. Because I didn’t believe that books could get written in coffee shops. But now that I’ve interviewed about 150 authors and I ask some of them exactly how they did it or where they did it, and some of them assure me, like, that’s it. That’s their thing. You know, it’s a ritual and it’s their happy place. And it’s like, wow, I know.
Mike Finkel [01:46:54] I mean, I I’m just not able to not listen to the conversation of the person next to me. That’s just something I listen to. Like I. So anyway, my my office is not what’s behind me with all these fascinating little geegaws. I work in all the major office. It’s like there’s no more disappointment possible. It’s like Litch, when I lived in Montana, it was literally a closet. It was the janitors closet, but old elementary school that became artists that they were renting out classrooms. And I was like, oh, can I rent, can I rent the janitor’s closet? And like, we hadn’t even thought of that. This is a true story, by the way. They were they were like measuring by the entrance, by the square foot. And I think my first year’s rent was sixteen dollars a month. And I immediately wrote a check for the whole year. And I just took off the big door and I bought a door with a window in it. So at least had a window. It was like a metal door like literally. And I put a nice picture and then you go with the window, I put a sheet over, I like to write in a closet. And then I you know, how baseball players, they have this batters. I there’s like a there’s a black there’s like blackness. So they can see the ball. You can’t even have like people sitting in center field. I call it my writers. I cannot if there’s a window I will cover it. If there’s like peripheral vision is good, like I don’t want anything in my peripheral vision, it’s all blank. I will have a huge semicircle of research behind me, but all I have is my computer white space. I don’t want to freakin see the beach. Don’t show me the beach. That’s torture. And I will light a single candle by candlelight here is lit. That’s some serious stuff. When I like the candle I can’t even make my finger touch it. It’s a mirror. Mirror stuff is ridiculous. Oh yeah. I just, I actually just, I just pointed to that camera by thinking I was going to make a candle. I think I was going to make a joke by pointing in the wrong direction. I actually just pointed it out, by the way, that was actually I just cracked myself up. I thought I was going to actually point somewhere else, never mind. So I have blank white walls. I really believe that once, even with nonfiction, that I love fiction. The words are generated between the ears and anything else is a distraction for me. And I will play white noise. No music ever. I’ll just listen to the music. I’ll put a fan on just to make white noise and that’s it. Oh, I don’t want so laugh.
Brilliant Miller [01:49:26] I think these are my last two questions for you. One is. It’s potentially a big question, but it’s a will you give us the thumbnail sketch out? How do you take a book from the idea to publish a book? What’s your process?
Mike Finkel [01:49:43] Yes. Yeah. So I’m writing nonfiction, so I find it to be. Not going to say easy, but it’s told it has a pattern and this is the thing I like most, I think I’ve touched on this before, how important the topic is. And this is what I like about my process, is that the very hardest part of my entire book process, which takes me four years, is the first part. So once that’s done, everything is easier. So I have to keep saying for me, just everybody listen for me is the way every sentence really ends, but I’m not going to just keep there for me anyway. I once I have the topic like the art thief or the hermit and he’s agreed to talk to me, then everything else to me is easier. And so then I do one year of reporting approximately, I will go and visit the artist seven or eight times, know travel with him and then I’ll do one year of research and one year of writing and one year of editing, which I talked about how important it was rewriting. And so those are my four parts in a nutshell for nonfiction.
Brilliant Miller [01:51:00] OK, that was truly a thumbnail. Thinking about if I want to ask about how you stay organized, I can research how you collect stories, how you like any anything like that coming up, that might be.
Mike Finkel [01:51:16] Yeah, I’ll tell you one thing, one little thing that not very many people know about. It’s called my block of granite. Now, you know, we’ve spoken for 17 hours already. I feel like we know each other. Yeah. So, you know, I feel like you can just like kind of watching my own damn face on this video is like I feel like I do have a busy, sort of disorganized head. And as you could tell, that’s why I want white space and and not a coffee shop. It’s not that I can’t concentrate. Is that a lot of things are interesting to me. So this is what I do to write a nonfiction book. And I don’t know if anybody else does this. After all the year one, the reporting year to the research is actually a little step in between the research when that’s all done in the writing. And it’s called The Block of Granite. My some of my editors know about that. Oh, I finished the block of granite, which is I literally without any editing or worrying about flow or words, write down absolutely everything that I have learned research wise or reporting wise or just in my own head about the subject. And I’ll write and write and write and. Right, right, right. And I’ll just say this even sometimes cut and paste like a dictionary or encyclopedia entries, and it’s generally chunked out it just like generally what order I want to put it in. And that takes months. And my last chunk of granite for this current art thief book was there was an exact number that I sent to me. It is like two thousand two hundred single spaced pages. I did not print it out in ways to hold true, but it was there. And that’s like literally everything that I have. And I think of myself as a sculptor, really. This is actually how I think of it. Not a I don’t know if I’ve actually talked to this very often. And so that’s that is my block of granite. And then I chisel the book out of it. It was two million plus words and I actually like my books to be extremely short. So from those two thousand two hundred pages, I will cut out two thousand pages. They’ll keep two hundred and the rest goes on the floor. So I feel sort of comfortable. I feel like I’m less creating the kind of almost the word destroying, but it’s not really the way it works. But I am basically pulling shit out that’s not good. And finding the gem the that’s in that two thousand two hundred page block of granite and that’s just makes my head feel comfortable. Like before I did a block of granite, I felt when I was writing that I was like, don’t forget, don’t forget that part and don’t forget that part. And when that comes and then it was sort of I had no flow because I was too busy trying to remember that. And then I basically put everything out on paper. And then my mind is like nothing else in my head. I my mind is blank and it’s all in the block of granite. Don’t have to remember anything. It’s already there. And that allows me to write with levity and lightness and flow. That’s me. That’s awesome.
Brilliant Miller [01:54:36] That’s for me. Coming up right now, Michaelangelo quote about just saw the angel in the marble and carved until he was free kind of thing.
Mike Finkel [01:54:46] Precisely that kind of thing.
Brilliant Miller [01:54:48] And then what was the other one? Is it Falkiner? Was it kill, kill your darlings?
Mike Finkel [01:54:52] Yeah, there’s a lot of them. You know, there’s a lot of those great quotes. If you come across a phrase that you especially like, be sure to strike it out first.
Brilliant Miller [01:55:02] I love what you’re saying. And even though David Allen, his whole getting things done, I don’t know if you are learning that system of persons like productivity, but he talks about when you get things out of your mind that you’re no longer like you’re able to be present and you’re able not to worry. And I love your block of granite approach of knowing that it’s all there. And at some point you’re going to deal with it, but you don’t need to try to hold it mentally together now.
Mike Finkel [01:55:23] Right. I think the bigger takeaway might be like everyone has to deal with their own weird brain themselves. Like I’m the I make like a list of a to do list almost every morning. And that way enough to remember what I’m apt to do. I just write it just things like that, just like because I just don’t like to have to hold ridiculous things in my mind that pick up my child at five thirty. I got to keep that’s going to keep playing in my mind. But if I write it down there it is even like set a little alarm on my phone and then I don’t have to think about it single ring. So I find freedom in that some other people, you know, whatever, they have their own tricks.
Brilliant Miller [01:56:01] Well, Mike, the last question I have for you here is what advice or encouragement do you leave people listening with that will… Now that I’m asking the question, I’m inclined to ask it in two parts, because there’s one that’s what’s your advice and encouragement specific to writing something that might help them to get through that dark tunnel and actually finish their book and share it with the world. So their advice and encouragement specific to writing that you would offer. And then the broader one is what’s the advice or encouragement or what are the final things you leave our listeners with?
Mike Finkel [01:56:32] OK, for writing with the caveat that I am not really an editor as we’ve talked before. I like to read this is what I this is what I like to you know, people that say they want to write a book or they sometimes think that you have to use, like, big words or be complicated. This is what I recommend. Again, I do a lot of dress for your first draft. It works for me, which is that I am you can use a restaurant, but I like to say a bar. I’m sitting at a bar with my friend and he or she says to me, what’s this? What do you write about? And that’s the answer. There was this guy. It could be just there is this guy. Just type that out. Don’t worry about it. The first draft, you know, he’s an art thief is incredible. I’d just be like, you just tell the story like you’re speaking to a friend. It will come out very naturally. Don’t try and sound like fucked or hit the thesaurus. Just tell the story like you’re telling it to a friend. Don’t worry about anything and you will be surprised. At how good it is and the reason why it’s good is because it sounds like you, not anyone else, and you could even start out there was this guy, which is not a good opening line, but it’s perfectly fine for your first draft. So just tell the story to your friend. You can even and I have done this before, literally do that and put on a tape recorder and literally go to a quiet bar, don’t want too much background noise and tell your friend the story. And that’s the way you get the first draft. Just tell your friend the story. That’s what your readers are going to be. Nobody wants to hear. But there’s already Ernest Hemingway. We don’t need another beer. It’s the only way and be yourself is terrible advice because how the hell did you yourself just tell the story to your friend at the bar and see what happens to your first draft? That’s my writing advice. And then what’s the other one? Life advice?
Brilliant Miller [01:58:27] Well, not necessarily even advice, but just final final thoughts. Final words. You know, now that we’ve talked for nearly two hours and again, thank you for being so generous with your time and sharing of your experience and your insight. But just at the conclusion here of the conversation we’ve had, what do you leave our listeners with?
Mike Finkel [01:58:44] I’m thinking that. I don’t know why this jumped into my mind, but I’m thinking that you have to forgive yourself. And what I mean by that is if you’re anything like me, you strive to be a good father, a good person, and you feel like you didn’t quite succeed. And I think you have to I think kind of the secret to sort of getting through life with a decent attitude is to be able to shake the Etch a Sketch to say, like, OK, I tried to be a perfect person and failed for the ten thousand day in a row and going to start again tomorrow. And so there’s just like forgive yourself. If you have good intentions and you fail, that’s fine. And then, man. If you mess up, I think it’s nice to call up and say so, and that took me a little while to learn, so it could be very stubborn. So I guess forgive yourself. But also when you do mess up, go pick up the phone and acknowledge it. It’s amazing, amazing how people will cheat like the worst fights with someone you like. And then I call it like, listen, man, I’m so sorry. I was just and it’s like being on a dime like all this. It’s incredible. I’ve I’ve experienced it time and again. And you think we will never speak again. We’re done forever. I ran my garment and you’re like, oh my God, I feel terrible. And they’re just going to hang up on me. This this woman is never gonna talk to me. And I say, I’m really sorry. And it’s just like all melts. It’s kind of amazing. People are ready to forgive.
Brilliant Miller [02:00:28] Well, thank you for sharing that.
Mike Finkel [02:00:31] Wow, brilliant, really, you are you are actually a brilliant interviewer.
Brilliant Miller [02:00:35] Well, thank you, I, I sure I enjoy it. And as I’ve already said a couple of times, I’ve loved this book and and I learned so much and I’ve enjoyed the conversation we’ve had today. So I just leave the leave you a listener with with this the stranger in the woods. The extraordinary story of the last true hermit. Mike Finkel is the guest. Mike Finkel, MichaelFinkel.com. You can find his work there. This is an international bestseller for very good reason. So I hope you’ve enjoyed this interview. Thank you for listening. Hey, thanks so much for listening to this episode of the School for Good Living podcast. Before you take off, just want to extend an invitation to you. Despite living in an age where we have more comforts and conveniences than ever before, life still isn’t working for many people, whether it’s here in the developed world where we deal with depression, anxiety and loneliness, addiction, divorce, unfulfilling jobs or relationships that don’t work, or in the developing world where so many people still don’t have access to basic things like clean water or sanitation or health care or education, or they live in conflict zones. There are a lot of people on this planet that life isn’t working very well for. If you’re one of those people or even if your life is working, but you have the sense that it could work better. Consider signing up for the School for Good Livings Transformational Coaching Program. It’s something I’ve designed to help you navigate the transitions that we all go through, whether you’ve just graduated or you’ve gone through a divorce or you’ve gotten married, headed into retirement, starting a business, been married for a long time, whatever. No matter where you are in life, this nine month program will give you the opportunity to go deep in every area of your life to explore life’s big questions, to create answers for yourself in a community of other growth minded individuals. And it can help you get clarity and be accountable. To realize more of your unrealized potential can also help you find and maintain motivation. In short, is designed to help you live with greater health, happiness and meaning so that you can be, do, have and give more visit good living dotcom to learn more or to sign up today.
Sign up to receive podcasts, blog posts, and other inspiring content from Brilliant Miller delivered to your inbox.
Live a good life. Help others live a good life too!
We will never sell your name or email address.
Opt-out at any time. No strings.