At two a.m. in what used to be a janitor's closet, Mike Finkel sits in baggy sweatpants and big fuzzy slippers staring at his computer screen, typing in bursts of energy. His truck is alone in the parking lot at the Emerson Cultural Center. He’s laboring over the third draft of a story for National Geographic Adventure magazine about his recent expedition down the Chinko River in the Central African Republic. He finishes a paragraph, decides he likes it and takes a victory lap or two around the darkened halls of the Emerson’s second floor. Then back to the computer.
Four hours later as he’s leaving his office/cubby, Finkel runs into the janitor. "You sure did get here early this morning," the janitor says to him. "Nope, just working late," says Finkel. "Good night." "Good morning,"says the janitor.
Finkel is a journalist, the author of a newly published book, a ski bum, a hockey fanatic, a night owl, a long long distance runner, a wanna-be French chef, a small time chicken farmer and a complete and total spaz.
At thirty years old, Finkel has been writing for nearly ten years. He broke into the business while in college at the University of Pennsylvania by entering and winning an essay contest in Ski magazine. His prize was a spring break trip to Breckenridge, Colorado, after which the editors asked him to submit a few paragraphs. When he received a check for the work he’d done¾ work he considered parallel to the papers he’d been writing since first grade on the subject of ‘What I did on my summer vacation,’¾ Finkel was sold. He would make his living writing about skiing.
Since then, his breadth of topics has grown as dramatically as the number of magazines willing to pay him decent money to play and write about it. Finkel contributes frequently to Skiing, Sports Illustrated, Audubon, Outside, Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Hooked on the Outdoors and most recently, National Geographic Adventure. He has written about flounder stomping in Scotland, crab fishing in Alaska, and skiing just about anywhere. He has run a 100-mile race, biked across Montana and skied the glacier atop Mt. Kilimanjaro. He joined the marines for winter ski training and, more recently, Finkel hooked up with a bizarre Colorado running cult, the story of which appeared in the November/December issue of Women’s Sports and Fitness.
Mike Finkel doesn’t say no. Later in January, he leaves for a month in Siberia on what he considers a near perfect assignment: spend one month in a Siberian winter and write about it. As is the case with many of his assignments, Finkel has no plans, no ideas of what to expect and dizzying enthusiasm for whatever stories need telling. When it doesn’t say, "I’m out of the country," his answering machine usually says "I’m back in the country."
He found his way to Bozeman seven years ago in much the same way. The editors at Skiing asked him to move to a mountain town anywhere in the US, be a ski bum for a year and write about it. Finkel never left.
Last fall, Finkel schussed into the other side of publishing with Alpine Circus (Lyons Press, 1999), his appropriately titled first book. In a collection of brilliantly told stories, Finkel writes about his experiences on skis all over the world¾ from the smallest ski hill in the States (outside of Syracuse New York) to the tallest ski area in the world (Chacaltaya, Bolivia). Although some of the stories had been published in magazines, as a collection read back to back, Alpine Circus is more than solid. It’s damn good.
Part anthropologist, part self-deprecating comedian, part skier and all adventurer, Finkel takes readers along as he explores the dynamics of playing across the globe. In China, he taught a village of Kazak herdsmen how to make turns. In Tanzania, one night after supper, he introduced a group of porters to a frisbee. In Sarajevo, he played chess with a Bosnian man who lifted his shirt to reveal horrific scars from the war with Serbia. In Iran, he sang army marching chants with the ski patrollers inside their hut until laughter overwhelmed them and they all spilled back onto the slopes.
Though his skis provide him the medium for which to communicate with people, Finkel’s ears and eyes¾ even his heart¾ connect us to the places and the people he meets. He is a thoughtful and deeply involved observer, paying attention to the tiniest details and throwing himself headlong into every story. With compassionate insight, good humor and clean prose, Alpine Circus is more than a little fun to read!
It wouldn’t be Mike Finkel’s work without some absurd adventures, though: being intentionally buried in an avalanche; skiing like a pirate down a runaway truck ramp; agreeing to be a passenger in a basement-built airplane. Still, Finkel’s voice is remarkably humble. He says things on paper that one imagines he can barely whisper to himself. There are moments, crystalline and perfect, where he is scared. And as readers, so are we.
One of Finkel’s greatest gifts, as a person and a writer, is the way he makes himself accessible. Always. And to anyone. He picks up hitchhikers and his guest bed is slept in more often than his own. He will meet anyone, anytime, in any bar, anywhere. Finkel loves to hear stories, perhaps even more than he likes to write them. He is childlike in his fascination with the mundane and the eccentric.
What Finkel can do on paper is nothing short of magical. He can weave his thoughts and interpretations with other people’s perspectives into a seamless tapestry. What he does with what comes out of his mouth in a bar or over a dinner table, on the other hand, is a different story entirely. The way his mind scans a situation even faster than his eyes size up a landscape prevents the completion of more than a few sentences or a single thought. He has the self-consciousness of an old man telling old stories, which is to say none whatsoever. Finkel never crafts himself, the way he does his prose. Sometimes he just rambles. "You can write whatever you want," he said to me. "But I’m just going to tell you what I’m thinking about."
I would have been an institutionalized spaz if spazzing was an institutionalizable offence. And my general philosophy on life is that if you can’t decide between two things, do them both. That’s one of my fortune cookie aphorisms. If in doubt, the answer is yes. That’s another one. It’s better to regret the things you’ve done than to regret the things you haven’t done.
On Becoming a Writer:
I didn’t start keeping a journal in earnest until I was in college but when I was in sixth grade we had an assignment from our English teacher which was to keep a journal for a week. My mom, who is a packrat, came across it maybe five or six years ago and sent it to me and it said in there, no fooling, ‘When I grow up I want to be a writer.’ I am one of the extremely fortunate people who has known what he has wanted to do always and is doing it. . . . I plan on being a writer until I die or I forget how to write, in which case I’m opening up a French Restaurant. Although some mornings, no, most mornings, I turn on the computer and my first thought is ‘Fuck, I forgot how to write. I knew this was going to happen one day.’
I sometimes sit there in front of the computer and I think that I’m at the bar on a stool. And maybe a friend of mine is sitting there. I hope that my writing comes out as a story like that. . . . The dirty dark secret is that it takes me forever to make it sound like I just wrote it in a minute.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m not a fan of some literature because it is difficult to read. Like James Joyce, who is revered and, you know, the author of the best book of the century. I’m not ashamed to say that I don’t really like his writing that much because it’s difficult to read. (He stops for a few moments to chat with Betsy, a pastry chef, and find out what she was doing at midnight on the millennium). . . Writing should be easy on the reader in my philosophy. People are busy. Humans are busy. I believe it should be short. I believe it should be easy to read, even if it’s a serious topic it shouldn’t be, I don’t know. . . that’s just my own philosophy. I am eternally optimistic and joyous and I’m happy to be that way. In fact, I often think to myself that I will never be a great writer slash artist because I’m too upbeat and that only the really semi-suicidal, drunken, miserable cases become successful. You have to, like, cut off your ear to become a great painter and you have to, like, drink yourself into oblivion or be like Sylvia Plath to be a great writer. Well, fuck it, I’d rather be a mediocre writer and a happy person.
I genuinely think that every person, be ye President of the United States or a janitor in the men’s room at Grand Central [Station in New York City] is fascinating and has a story to tell. And I don’t differentiate between the two. In fact, an assignment to interview the janitor at Grand Central Station may turn me on more than one on one with Clinton who’s probably going to be very guarded while I will actually get to the seed of the soul, for lack of a better word, of the janitor.
I often find that the best way to know a person is meet them when they’re playing. I believe in play as a greater indication of who a person is than what their job is. I never do formal interviews. I don’t use a tape recorder. I take notes but occasionally. I mostly go home at night and write my impressions down. You can read my stuff; there are not very many quotes. It’s more impressionistic. I think the two greatest places in the world to interview someone are at the bar and on a chairlift. And you don’t really interview someone. You just say ‘hello’.
On the Book:
So I wrote a little collection of stories that became a book and it’s kind of lightweight. On the other hand, it’s kind of what I like to do. I am interested in covering war but I’d cover war the same way I’d cover a ski resort which would be like ‘Who’s there and what do they have to say?’ . . . I hope this is the worst book I ever write. That’s what I hope. It would suck if it was the best book I ever write. Here’s the thing I’m most proud of: I am proud that were you to throw the book off a building and it hit you in the head, it would hurt. That’s pretty cool. This thing has corners. I might even be able to draw blood if I threw it hard enough.
The truth is I don’t ever think of myself as a ski writer. In fact, I battled with my editor about putting "A Skier’s Adventures at the Snowy Edge of the World. The stories all have my skis on but it’s more like a travel story with a hook. I never have called myself a writer to anybody. I call myself a journalist because I don’t like to use that term. I feel like I’m at the stage where maybe I’m a writer in training.
I’ve taken one writing class and it was kind if a half writing class because it was here at MSU with my friend Greg Keeler. I don’t really like to talk with writers about writing so I have no idea what is good and what is bad, what is right and what is wrong. And now that I’m an old man, 30 almost 31, I don’t care. The cool thing about turning 30 is that instead of being a kid, I’m an adult. And I’ve realized that ‘Oh, I’m right. My way of writing is perfectly fine.’
I don’t like to read adventure writers very much because, honestly, I’m a little competitive with them. And I want to write my own way. I don’t really even read Outside magazine, although I subscribe to it, because these are the people I’m in competition with. In this funny sort of way, I’m a little ‘chameleony’ and if I read good writing, it [Finkel’s own writing] becomes like that writing in its own small way. I’m still too young to have my own, rock solid voice.
What I read is¾ in fact I want to teach a class on this one day¾ very current, literary fiction... like books published this month. Very, very, very current fiction. I am in love with Lorrie Moore. I think Birds of America is the best book written in decades. In fact, I’m one of the few people who think that the greatest writing is being done right now. I think that people who have read Hemingway and Steinbeck are writing better than Hemingway and Steinbeck. I think David Foster Wallace is beyond brilliant, and a genius. I think that Alice Munro writes the best short stories ever written. Then I go back as far as, say, Raymond Carver, who has had a huge influence on me. John McPhee writes non-fiction that I would sacrifice probably two to three limbs to be able to do. One testicle for sure. Not both though. Maybe a kidney. All of my hair. And a nostril.
I love to stay up extraordinarily late and I also love to get up really early so something has to give. Like I’ve often said, the first twenty years after I’m dead, I’m not even dead I’m just catching up on sleep... I believe that as a person, as opposed to a journalist, my entire body has to be satisfied. From the neck up is what, 10%? So I need to exercise every single day or else I am annoying. I’m fairly annoying even after I’ve exercised, but before, uber-annoying... I also don’t ever wear a watch and so I don’t really understand time. I don’t understand why I can’t play pick-up hockey at four in the morning. Where is everyone else? Come on people! That’s why I like New York City. I love New York City. My two favorite places in the world are Bozeman, Montana, and Manhattan Island. And I see more similarities in them than most people. Very energetic, spirited people although in different directions.
I’m an outdoorsy writer and the career is cool because I get to exercise... But I can’t only exercise. I have to go and satisfy myself above the neck which ¾ maybe I should divide the proportion into how much blood it [the brain] uses up, about 50/50. It snowed six inches last night and my roommate said to me, "Are you going skiing?" And I said, "No, I’m going to write." And he said, "You’re an idiot." But no, I actually really like to write as much as I like to ski powder. Both. So it’s cool because I cannot give up the writing part and I’m not giving up the exercise part. So they’re both vital.
I like being a writer because you can write something and then run and hide. The great thing about the job, I might say [is that] I’m 31 and probably if I was a baseball player, which I wanted to be for a while, or a skier, I’d be at the waning part of my career. But hopefully I’ll write the best sentence I’ve ever written the minute before I drop dead."