This Week’s Column:


a MobyLives guest column

by Paul Maliszewski

7 November 2005 — Michael Finkel had a great job. As a writer for the New York Times Magazine, he traveled widely, reporting on Haitian refugees, Palestinian youths, the brisk black market in human organs, and the cocoa trade in West Africa. In less than two years, he wrote eight features for the magazine, including two lengthy dispatches from the war in Afghanistan. He also contributed to the Atlantic Monthly, National Geographic Adventure, Sports Illustrated, and Rolling Stone.

Then, in February 2002, Finkel was fired. His editors at the New York Times Magazine published a note explaining that Finkel had, they discovered, created a composite character and used "improper narrative techniques" in his article about West Africa, "Is Youssouf Malè A Slave?" While reporting in Mali and the Ivory Coast, Finkel had interviewed many boys who worked in the cocoa fields, earned little money and endured brutal working conditions, if not outright abuse. When writing and revising his article, however, Finkel blended details from the life of Malè, a real boy, with the experiences of others in similar straits.

The article that resulted from Finkel's experiment with truth and style was anything but standard magazine fare. Its spare language and hypnotic repetition owed as much to the plainspoken simplicity of folktales as the grit–flecked novels of Cormac McCarthy:

The man came to the village on a moped. Youssouf Malè watched him. A man on a moped was unusual. When visitors did come to Nimbougou, deep in the hill country of southern Mali, they were almost always on foot, or on bicycle. The man on the moped had come to sell fabrics, the flower–patterned kind from which the women in Youssouf's village liked to sew dresses. Youssouf sat beneath a palm tree and watched.

Finkel did not so much tell Malè's story as channel the boy himself:

And on this man's feet—my goodness. On this man's feet was something that Youssouf had never before seen. In Nimbougou, people either wore flip–flops or plastic sandals or nothing. What this man wore on his feet looked to Youssouf like a type of house. Like a miniature house, one for each foot. Two perfect, miniature houses, painted white, with curved walls that rose to the man's ankles, with a fence up the front of each one made of thin rope.

What followed was the predictable storm: mea culpas and media criticism. Writers scolded the New York Times for allowing it to happen and roundly denounced Finkel, seeking in his personal life easy explanations for behavior they could not, it seemed, otherwise imagine. Some speculated, not very helpfully, that Finkel was under a great deal of stress.

In Finkel's few statements to the media, he acknowledged his mistake but sought to keep it in the context of his entire career. "It's an isolated incident, without question a wrong decision," he told one reporter. "I hope readers know that this was an attempt to reach higher—to make something beautiful, frankly." Unlike Stephen Glass, a writer with whom he was sometimes compared who was fired for fabricating all or parts of twenty–seven articles for The New Republic, Finkel faked but once. When the New York Times subsequently re–reported all of Finkel's stories, the editors could find just two factual errors: the number of letters exchanged between a couple of men was seven, not twenty, and a city's name was misspelled.

Finkel retreated to his home in Montana and stopped writing for publications. To try to explain his silence, he told another reporter, "I have been doing a great deal of thinking, and I've decided to take some time before commenting further about the situation. Eventually, I plan to write about the experience myself."

This summer Finkel published True Story, a book that describes what he did, why, and also what happened next. Shortly after Finkel was fired, he learned that Christian Longo, a man suspected of murdering his wife and children had taken Finkel's name and identity while on the run in Mexico. The coincidence was bizarre but true. The real and fake Finkels began exchanging lengthy personal letters and eventually met. Like Janet Malcolm's journalist and murderer, Finkel and Longo wanted something from each other. Finkel needed a story, a new assignment by which to prove himself and, perhaps, recuperate some of his lost credibility. Longo needed someone to talk to. Prison was lonely, after all, and Longo liked to talk, especially about himself. Finkel, a professional listener and a skeptic by nature, could, Longo realized, serve as a test audience, helping him to hone his alibis and explanations.

PM: Why did you write about getting fired from the New York Times Magazine through the story of Christian Longo?

MF: I figured that since I was fired, if I was ever going to write again, there was no way to write an article without saying somewhere in the first paragraph, "I really messed up. I know you know that I messed up, and I would like you to give me a second chance." Somehow address it, and I thought, here's a perfect way to do it.

PM: Shortly after losing your job, you told a reporter, "Eventually, I plan to write about the experience myself." What was it that you were planning to write then?

MF: At that point, Chris Longo was nothing more than a fantastically coincidental diversion from my devastation and my deep depression, frankly, and self–loathing for what I had done. I had lost my job but not my reportorial instincts, so I immediately was curious about who would impersonate me. When I gave that quote to the reporter, I had no conception that what happened to me would be anything more than a journal entry. I thought I would just write about it in my journal to myself. In fact, what I was thinking, I believe, was you can take away my job and you can cut off my arms but I'll still find a way to write.

PM: For True Story, you explain that you fact–checked everything Longo told you, yet initially you could identify nothing amiss with his account. What does that suggest about the ability to catch people who are playing fast with the truth?

MF: One of the themes of this book is this whole issue of what's true and what's not. What stories are true? What does non–fiction mean? What is thought of as good journalism? Accurate quotes? If I say to you, "I'm a girl named Jennifer" and then you report, "Mike Finkel is a girl named Jennifer," is that good journalism? It's an accurate quote, but it's completely false. You've not broken any rules of journalism, you've just written something completely false. That complexity is at the heart of this whole story.

PM: What's a reporter to do then, when fact–checking fails?

MF: I think what a reporter does is be honest with his or her readers and tell them this is an untrustworthy person. This is what I've been able to check. This is what I haven't. In the end, really, you can warn the reader and tell the story and let your readers decide how much is true and how much is false. There's not a lot you can do. You can't guarantee that everything in the story is true. You can only guarantee that it's accurate.

PM: Has Longo read the book?

MF: I want him to read the book. I sent it to the Oregon State Penitentiary, where it was rejected. I sent it to his defense attorney in the hopes that it could be legitimately thought of as germane to his case. We have had a little contact lately, and I read him what I thought are the harshest indictments. He wasn't thrilled, but he wasn't unhappy. I think what he said to me was that all sounds fair. Which is probably the best a journalist can hope for.

PM: While working on the West Africa story for the New York Times Magazine, you realized that many but not all of the reporters who covered it before you got it wrong. They wrote journalistically accurate stories, but they didn't capture the truth. An article in the Chicago Sun–Times said, "It was rare to meet a child who had not been beaten." Yet your experience was the exact opposite: beatings were rare.

MF: The reporter didn't make that quote out of whole cloth. It was a quote given to him by an authority figure representing the laborers. I don't blame the reporter for using it. I may have used it myself. It's a powerful quote. Nobody has ever thought that journalists are infallible people. It just so happened that the very story that got me fired was a perfect example of accurate reporting in an untrue story. I think my West Africa story was completely accurate and untrue. I don't think reporters should be punished for being accurate and missing the story. It's just a demonstration that no matter how scrupulous you are, you can get fooled. Of course if somebody wants to fool you, they can fool you. But no reporter had any malicious intent.

PM: Why do you think people were outraged by your composite, but couldn't have cared less about the reporters who got it wrong?

MF: What I did was deliberate. I deliberately abused the readers' trust. People were upset with my mistakes and not others' because mine were done purposefully and theirs were absolutely innocent and completely understandable. That makes all the difference in the world.

PM: While you were working on the West Africa story, your editor suggested you "go literary." What did that instruction mean to you?

MF: I want to emphasize right here that no editor at the Times told me to do anything improper and no editor was aware that I was doing anything improper. I knew exactly what she meant. She meant to write a magazine–style feature, to use the elements of literature that are acceptable in non–fiction—readability, flowery writing when necessary, metaphors, things like that. There was no implication to cheat.

PM: Your editor also suggested that you tell the story through one character, a boy. Why was that a good way to tell the story?

MF: If I had a really great interview with one person who was representative of many, he would solve the problem of complexity right off the bat. You would have one character, which is very simple for a reader to keep in his or her mind, and then you can bring out a lot of the complexities. Nobody's going to make the mistake that every single boy is exactly the same. But there are enough similarities that by writing a detailed portrait of one boy, you can take an extraordinarily complex problem—the issues of abuse of children and child labor and West–East relations—and boil all that stuff away and let the reader focus on the telling details that illuminate the larger issues in a compelling, easily digestible way. It was a great idea to tell the story through one boy, and all I had to say was, "I don't have that story," and my editor immediately would have been fine with that. I have not ever forgiven myself for not just saying, "I don't really have that material." Because it really is a great idea. I wish that I had. I've berated myself about it repeatedly. Like I said, I've never fully forgiven myself. I wish I would have flown back to Africa and done it. I wish many things. I rue many things.

PM: That was an option, financially, to just say, "I don't have that story, but let me try again"?

MF: I had written four pieces for the Times Magazine in the previous year or so, and they were very well received, but in my ambition and paranoia, I'd forgotten all that. I was blindly ambitious and panicked that if I made one false move, I would be replaced. It's not like there's no one else who wants to write for the magazine. I realize now that all I had to do was be honest and open with my editor and there would be complete understanding. I might have written a mediocre story that they would have run. They might have killed it. But I think I would have continued to write for the magazine. Obviously, I didn't see that at the time.

PM: What other ways of telling the West Africa did you try?

MF: The article went through a few drafts, but right from the get–go, I was being deceptive and there was some compositing going on with the boy. I realized that I didn't have this great interview with a kid. So I decided, well, I'll write a profile of many people. I had a great interview with a plantation owner, and so I put him in. I had a great interview with a locateur, a person who transports the boys from one place to another. So I decided to put all those elements in place and show how no one person's to blame. It's like that Bob Dylan song, "Who Killed Davey Moore?" about a boxer who died in the ring. The locateur's just trying to make a dollar. The plantation owner's trying to do this. The boy's trying to earn a dime. I like to convince myself that if that draft was working, I would have cleaned it up. I was very frustrated. I had struggled with the writing. I was basically throwing things down. You know, it was such a rough draft. I was just trying to get the skeleton done.

PM: Both you and your editor wanted "a story that would sing." What does that mean?

MF: It's an ineffable style and internal sense of propulsion that makes you want to go from one sentence to the next. It's like the difference between someone who can hit every key on the piano in the right order for the right amount of time, and someone who can play the piano. I wanted to combine nice prose and scrupulous accuracy with all my non–fiction pieces, without cheating.

PM: Are the literary qualities that people praise in non–fiction—these expectations for stories that sing, for dramatic lead paragraphs, interesting characters, and a central figure who, like a protagonist in a novel, can carry the whole narrative—difficult to balance with journalism's strict standards of truth?

MF: Yes, they are. Let me give you one small example. If you look at all my articles together, there are never long passages of conversation. But sometimes I'm reading like, "I'm driving my truck..." and there's this great conversation going on, and it's clearly not recorded and clearly the dude couldn't write it down, because he's driving his truck. I'm always either amazed they were able to remember it or skeptical that it was mostly recreated. I wonder how the writer can be so confident, to the point of using quotation marks, that that's how the conversation really went.

PM: What other elements of a good, engaging story are hard to capture while still writing an article that's journalistically sound?

MF: Well, unless you're talking about birth and death, one's story does not have a smooth beginning and end. So, by nature, the beginning and the end are semi–artificial. What's really hard for me writing in a magazine format is to find a tale that feels complete and whole and yet is only 2,000 words long. That, to me, is the hardest thing, a nice little chunk that fits into that space and doesn't leave too much out or oversimplify, that stays true and accurate and doesn't confound the reader. That's hard. But do–able. I've written almost 200 magazine articles. I'm able to do it.

PM: While working on True Story, how did you balance the obligations of telling a true story—being factually accurate—against telling a good story—being engaging and creating something that's a pleasure to read?

MF: I was obsessed with those obligations, because of what happened to me, and because of the subject matter, and just because of the title of the book. It's very challenging almost. It's like: Find a mistake in here. It took me three years of work to write this book. That's not fast. In fact, it's ridiculously slow. It's almost impossible for me to overstate how much I've thought about that conundrum, about writing a smooth, completely readable piece of writing and yet being absolutely beholden to the strictest rules of non–fiction.

There are aspects of non–fiction and fiction that are the same. Like you can write a nice metaphor in either one. Nice metaphors are not against the rules of non–fiction. Clean, readable sentences are not against the rules of non–fiction. Leaving out things, simplifying, is okay. Adding things is not. If I was writing fiction, this book would be smoother. If I was writing fiction, the characters would be more believable. If I was writing fiction, there would be a cleaner ending. But I'm not. So you have to learn that you're beholden to reality. That's your burden. Your benefit is that you don't have to invent an entire world. So it's both easier and harder. And you can have style and be a non–fiction writer. You just have to be careful. I was extremely careful during the three–year process of writing this book.

PM: The book is not as stylized as some of your journalism.

MF: The book's style—or lack of style—was a natural choice. The material I'm working with sort of dictates which form of non–fiction storytelling to employ. In a lot of my journalism, there are devices. The device in my book is that there is no device. I completely bent over backwards to make sure that there was nothing like that.

PM: What are some of the devices you used before?

MF: I've written with a "voice." The biggest example was in the story that got me fired, when I wrote in the voice of a young African laborer. I've also fiddled with structure—that is, not telling the story in a chronological way, but rather in a thematic order. The prime example was a piece I wrote about crossing the Sahara, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Void." It featured thirteen different people—tourists, natives, soldiers, drivers, etc.—telling their impressions of the vast ocean of sand at the center of the desert.

PM: Do you see yourself using devices again, or has this experience made you suspicious of them?

MF: It's made me more cautious and more self–conscious and possibly also a slower writer, but at the same time, I'm hoping that I can regain at least a majority of the readers' trust, and they'll know that anything like what happened with the New York Times will never happen again, and that if there's some sort of creative non–fiction used, it's only used in the most cautious and accurate way.

PM: Longo tells good stories, to you and others. They're believable on their face. But he can't really bring himself to tell his true story. What's the difference between good stories and true stories?

MF: I feel like I won the lottery with the Longo story because the whole thing supports the exact themes I wanted to explore. As the West Africa case is perfect for explaining how you can be accurate and yet still get everything wrong, Longo himself is a perfect case for how someone can take all the check–able facts and make a completely false story out of it. Just about everything he said to me in fifty hours plus of phone interviews was either uncheck–able or true. How perfect on one level and how profoundly annoying on another level.

When I was writing this book, one of the things I wanted to do was expose the inner workings of my reporting process. My magazine pieces sometimes are perhaps too slick, too smooth and don't show how I reported them. In this book, I wanted not only to write the story, but say how I wrote the story, as if this was a watch with a clear face. You know, I'm telling the time, and here's how. I think there are enough flags to the readers. Hey, this part I checked. This part I couldn't. It's up to you to decide. This part felt genuine, but that's just a judgment call. This part felt like utter bullshit as I said about his story on the stand. I mean, let's be honest, his story on the stand is absolutely factually accurate, but twelve jurors and I immediately didn't believe it. Is it possible that it's true? I guess it's possible the sun won't rise tomorrow. Did I believe it? Not at all. The whole question of what's true and what's not is exactly what the book is about. And I think by exposing the guts—by exposing the inner workings of my process—I think I'm giving the reader the ability to accept or reject Longo's story. I don't think I'm presenting it as the word of God.

PM: Is it hard to tell a true story that's also good?

MF: It depends upon the subject. This book was difficult because of the subject and because of my past. I'm hoping that future stories will not be so difficult. I've been made more aware, more cautious, more suspicious, and yet a better reporter in the end.

Paul Maliszewski has written for Bookforum, Granta, and Harper's. He is completing a collection of essays on the varieties of faking.

©2005 Paul Maliszewski

Previous columns:

THE FREELANCER . . Making a living out of free–lance writing—i.e., writing at home in your pajamas—is great . . . except for when it's not, says guest columnist Chris Rodell.

THE VARIETIES OF WRITERLY DISSIDENCE . . Guest columnist Wayne Miller says criticisms of Ismail Kadare's claims to dissidence arent' exactly wrong. They aren't exactly right, either. . .

AT THE FAMOUS WRITERS' CONFERENCE . . In a guest column, Marie Myung–Ok Lee describes being feted as an ethnic writer at a famous writers conference — when she isn't that ethnicity after all.

WHY ROBBER BARONS SELF–PUBLISH . . In a guest column, historian Edward J. Renehan, Jr. discusses why one of American history's leading financiers, Jay Gould, advised smart people to stay out of the publishing business.

KADARE IS NO SOLZHENITSYN . . The winner of the first Booker International Prize trashed "untrue" dissident writers for keeping silent. Guest columnist Renata Dumitrascu asks if he was really part of their suppression.<

GOOGLIZATION AND YOU . . Librarian Christopher Allen Waldrop says in a guest column that Google Print does more than break copyright laws — it opens the records of patrons up to more widespread scrutiny than the PATRIOT Act.

BOOKSELLER AT LARGE . . Guest commentator Dan Bloom says he moved to Taiwan and wrote a book that sold thousands of copies — after he took to the streets yelling, "Buy my book!"


All material not otherwise attributed ©2000 – 2005 Dennis Loy Johnson.