A Q&A with The Stranger in the Woods author Michael Finkel
[dropcap letter=”F”]or 27 years, Christopher Knight lived alone in a clandestine wooded camp in tiny Rome, undiscovered and unaided, breaking into camps to steal what he needed to survive. When he was finally captured and arrested in April 2013, the story of theNorth Pond Hermit made headlines worldwide.
Knight was apprehended carrying out what had come to be a routine robbery of Pine Tree Camp, a summer camp on North Pond catering to children and adults with disabilities. In the months that followed, as Knight awaited indictment and trial in the Kennebec County Jail, some 500 journalists attempted to contact him. Michael Finkel believes he is the only one to whom Knight replied.
In our March 2017 issue, we excerpt Finkel’s fascinating new book, The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit. After Knight answered Finkel’s handwritten letter, the author made four trips from his home in Montana to Maine, visiting Knight in jail. Over two months, the pair sat for nine hour-long conversations as Knight — at times eloquently, at times combatively — answered Finkel’s questions about his self-imposed solitude, his motivation, his survival strategies during 27 Maine winters without a fire. After Knight’s release, Finkel made three more reporting trips to Maine, interviewing law enforcement officers, talking to Knight’s victims and childhood acquaintances, and seeking out Knight for one last, emotional meeting. We talked to Finkel about his reporting process, why the story could have only happened in Maine, and his complex relationship with the North Pond Hermit.
So what prompted such a fascination that it kept you returning to Maine?
I came across a story from the Kennebec Journal about a guy who was arrested, claims he spent 27 years in the woods. That by itself got into my head, but really, it was the fact that Knight stole thousands of books. My two favorite things in the world are spending time in the wilderness and reading, and this guy was the world champion of both. And at the time I learned about Knight, I had three kids who were really small and loud and demanding of my time. I could barely read, barely spend time in the woods. So I think Knight’s story just hit me in a very deep way.
How well did you know the Maine woods at the time?
I grew up on the East Coast, and I skied a lot in Maine, hiked on the Appalachian Trail, camped in Acadia National Park. My mom and dad grew up in New York City and became late-in-life outdoor people, and Maine was our go-to place. So I love Maine — very independent, but not crazy conservative like, say, the Deep South. Ruggedly individualistic, and yet, if you put your car in the ditch, you don’t wait for more than one car to help you out. The fact that Chris Knight was from Maine made perfect sense to me.
Do you suppose his story would resonate differently had he lived in, say, southern California?
You can’t separate Knight from the place he had his hermitage — they’re intrinsically linked. I think the brutality of Maine’s winters was part of what prompted awe. I also don’t think he could have done it in California for 27 years without being discovered. It probably couldn’t have been Alaska because of the food situation. Even Montana would have been difficult, because our forests are so wide open — there’s not that crazy thick underbrush that you have. It had to be Maine.
How skeptical were you at first?
Look, this story is literally unbelievable. The people who live on North Pond, who would seem to have the most knowledge about it, believed it the least. And if you know my background, you know I got fired from The New York Times in 2002 for making up a story. [This is, in part, the subject of Finkel’s first book, True Story.] I’m very cautious about writing nonfiction in the most nonfiction-y way it can be done, so of course I came with skepticism. Before I met Knight, I talked to many who said, it’s clearly bullshit: there’s no way someone can survive more than a month in the Maine woods in winter with a fire, and without fire, it’s just not believable.
And then I met Chris Knight. I’ve been a journalist for 25-plus years. I’ve been lied to many times. I’ve spent a lot of time in some risky places. And I’ve never felt stronger that someone was not only being truthful, but being painfully, precisely, almost incapable-of-lying truthful. Then I spoke to the officer who arrested him, Terry Hughes, who is a master of people bullshitting and lying, who said without prompting that he felt he’d never spoken to someone more truthful and honest. Then I spoke with Diane Perkins-Vance, this tough-as-nails cop who’s used to being fed a line. And she, unprompted, told me she had no doubts of Knight’s story. Beyond that, I worked my ass off to verify everything I could find, to find anybody who had proof that anything Knight said was untrue. I went to his campsite, looking for any shred of evidence he was lying to me. Then I hired two independent fact-checkers to go through everything, and if we were only 98 percent sure of something, I cut it out. This story is true.
Given that Knight’s hermitage relied on his burglary, is it an achievement to be admired, in your mind?
How he described to me the way he felt while hiding out in the woods — despite the fact that he was well aware that he was stealing and that it was illegal — was this contentment that frankly very few people I know are able to express about their own lives. Chris Knight lived very much like an animal. Where I live in Montana, if you put out your garbage during bear season, the bears are going to go out and eat your garbage. Why? Because they’re efficient. When you’re living in a very cold environment — and Knight didn’t light a fire for 27 years — you need to be efficient, you need to save energy. And Knight, being very smart, realized that the most efficient way to feed himself was to pick locks and take it from people. If the most efficient way had been to fish or set snares, had it been 1000 or 200 years ago in Maine, he probably would have done that. But he went with the most efficient, energy-conserving way, which almost all animals in the woods do.
He’ll be the first to say — and I’ll be the second to say — that doesn’t forgive him. It was illegal, and he knew it. He was very grateful to spend only seven months in jail. He was aware that what he was doing was wrong, but he made a code that he lived by, which was trying not to encounter another human being, never robbing a house that was occupied full-time, passing by your computer and television only to take your hamburger and your Stephen King novel. He never said to himself, this is moral, but he came to a spot where he thought, “I’ve decided I can do this.”
How do you hope readers will come away thinking about Knight?
People who have lived alone — and we’re talking about maybe one one-hundredth of a percent of the population — they’re like this rare trait that’s been passed down through human civilization. And yet they’ve had this crazily profound effect on the world: let’s just start with, oh, Mohammed, Buddha, Jesus. All of them had this desire to go off by themselves for long periods of time. Even 40 days, which is what Jesus spent in the Judean desert, that’s probably 39½ more days than most people. Most people today never, ever spend a day alone in their entire lives. It’s crazy.
When I read other people’s accounts of hermitage, they’re all different, but they have deep similarities, and it sort of makes me jealous on some level. I’m sort of amazed by the profoundness of the experience. So if you read this book and dislike Knight, that’s a perfectly fine reaction. And if you read the book and find yourself a bit jealous, that’s also a fine reaction. I don’t shy from saying that he tortured some people — people who had every right to have a peaceful vacation a couple times a year, he tortured some of those people. He’s not an angel. But there’s something he did that I don’t think you can have no reaction to. I think you can be angry, I think you can be impressed. But I don’t think you can be, like, that’s boring. You have to do some work on your own. You have to read it and see how you feel when you close the book on it.
The Mainers you talked to, what was their reaction?
Some of the victims aside, there was, weirdly, this very profound respect and some awe. What I heard most was, “You know, I’ve thought about doing that before, just throwing up my hands and going into the woods.” I mean, don’t want to be banal about it, but there is something about modern society that we’re just not equipped for. We’re really calibrated to living in the woods — we’re only 12,000 years removed from every single one of us being hunter-gatherers. That seems like a long time, but really, all of our senses and reactions, the ways we move, think, feel, smell — they’re all really calibrated towards living a wilderness existence.
I mean, I feel all the time overwhelmed — children and work, this and that. But I feel very peaceful in the woods. So there was this weird jealousy, this complicated, yet not angry reaction where people very well could have been angry: This is a thief. This is a guy who was not self-sufficient. And there were those who said that, but really, even they weren’t quite angry. It was like, “You know, he should have hunted and fished, but I do tip my hat to the guy.”
So people didn’t want to do it exactly like Chris Knight, but many were like, “This guy had a vision and fulfilled it.” And me? I just dream about it at night, and then I wake up and make breakfast for three kids.
This conversation continues on March 7, when Michael Finkel reads from The Stranger in the Woods at SPACE Gallery in Portland, followed by a live Q&A with Down East managing editor Brian Kevin. Hosted by Print: A Bookstore. 7 p.m. Free. 538 Congress St., Portland. 207-536-4778.