In this exclusive Books & Biceps interview, I explore the Finkel Phenomenon with bestselling author Michael Finkel. We begin with a great quote that ties us together:
“For a brief period of time I gave the name Jon a try, but then I went back to Mike,” bestselling author Michael Finkel tells me over the phone.
I’m in the car during rush hour. Michael just got back to his place in France, where it’s after midnight. We burst out laughing as if we’re old high school pals recalling an inside joke (though we’ve never met). In fact, the conversation really is about the most inside joke of all time: our last name.
“Yeah, I hated how Michael Finkel sounded,” Michael Finkel said, “So when I was a kid I adopted Jon for a while. I thought I’d like Jon Finkel, but it didn’t work.”
As a lifelong, card carrying Jon Finkel, I could only laugh at the idea of someone trying on my name like a pair of Oakleys at Sunglass Hut. Should I have a sense of pride, even arrogance about him not keeping it? Like, “Yeah dude, you bailed on Jon Finkel but I’ve toughed it out. You couldn’t hang as a JF, pal. We don’t need any weak links!”
Or, you know, should I take it as an insult? Because one could read his admission as, “I tried Jon Finkel and it was worse than Michael Finkel so I hopped off that train real quick.”
Realistically, what do you say when someone says they gave your name a shot and it just didn’t take?
Has anyone ever told Michael Jordan, “Hey MJ, I tried being a Michael Jordan but it just didn’t work out, so I went back to Ira Jordan.”
Hell, even Michael B. Jordan has thrived as a Michael Jordan and he has a superfluous ‘B’ in the middle.
Then again, none of this is my fault. It all comes back to that last name… Finkel. It’s just…dorky.
“I can tell you that I first started disliking the Finkel name when I was a kid,” Finkel says, chuckling. “I can still hear the words to Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star being sung as Twinkle, Twinkle Little Finkel by other kids making fun of me. My God I HATED that!”
I hated it too. All Finkels do. That song is a preschool rite of passage as a Finkel. We’re just shit out of luck that our last name happens to rhyme with the most popular, nonsensical nursery rhyme of all time. It blows.
“Another one that used to drive me nuts was that at pools over the summer, instead of playing Marco Polo, kids would say, Michael Finkel instead,” Finkel says. “It was rough.”
Holy crap… I can hear it.
Miiiiichaelllll…. Finkel… Miiiiiichaelllllll…Finkel.
And then, of course, there’s the adult version of that courtesy of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.
“That movie,” Finkel says. “Just sucks for us.”
Yes, it does. We Finkels are in complete and total agreement on that. (Although I did interview Lois Einhorn AKA Sean Young about what it was like to play Finkel in a movie, you’ll love it.)
Then we shared tales about how often someone says Finkel / Einhorn to us.
Michael is currently promoting a new book. I just finished promoting a book.
We shared our war stories of podcasters and radio hosts randomly bringing up a catch phrase from a movie that came out almost 30 years ago while talking about books that having nothing to do with Jim Carrey or comedy or anything in that world.
And there were other war stories that we shared living parallel lives as Finkels.
Like how we both have looked in awe at the ex-Finkels we know in our family who actually managed to ditch the last name.
“I had a great Uncle or something like that who completely left the name and changed it to Minor,” Finkel said. “He never looked back.”
“Whoa,” I said. “My grandfather’s whole family actually came to the United States as Finkelsteins… Then most of his older brothers shortened it to Finn. Only my grandfather decided that just hacking off the ‘Stein’ would be enough. No idea why he didn’t just go all the way and drop it.”
“Finn is a good last name,” Finkel says, longingly.
“Yeah,” I say.
And we both pause, in complete wonder of what our lives would be like as a Finn or Minor…or anything else, really.
It’s like the last name Finkel is a planet that we’re stuck on and we’re sharing folk tales about explorers who somehow escaped its gravity and have thrived in outer space.
“I do think about how my life would be different if I was a Mike Smith or Mike James or something,” Finkel says.
“Me too,” I say. “For a while I tried my middle name as my last name. So I went by Jon Heath. Didn’t have staying power.”
“My middle name is Jeffrey and I tried something similar,” he said. “I actually wrote as Jeffrey Michael in my high school paper a few times.”
“I couldn’t stick with it,” he said. “I guess I figured there were worse last names out there. Like Lipschitz.”
And this is where Michael Finkel and I went next-level Finkel bonding because my whole life, the only last name I have ever thought that was worse than mine was Lipschitz* because my dad knew a guy named Lipschitz and he gave me hope that someone, somewhere out there had to endure having ‘lip’ and ‘shits’ be his last name, while I only had to deal with Finkel.
Call it surname Schaudenfraude. Call it me being an asshole. Call it whatever.
As a kid, that’s how I felt. And dammit, Michael Finkel felt the exact same way.
Nothing unites Finkels like the thought of someone else suffering a worse last name fate.
How else can you explain two grown men who met via a totally random Twitter DM 20 hours earlier having a hell of a great thirty-minute conversation based on one thing: our last name.
We were Finkels in arms, man. It was glorious.
“You know,” Finkel says. “I think at the end of the day, life is more interesting as a Finkel.”
“I agree,” I said.
“And at least we’re not a Lipschitz,” he said, laughing.
“Damn, right,” I said. “Finkels forever.”
*Sorry to all you Lipschitz’ out there… Much love from both of us.
Michael Finkel’s new book, The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime & a Dangerous Obsession, landed on several lists of “best books of 2023” but I didn’t get around to starting it until this year. I just began, but it’s phenomenal… and I’m not just saying that as a Finkel. It’s an incredible read, like his other book that I read, Stranger in the Woods.
And if you enjoyed this feature, you’ll definitely like my piece where I interview another Jon Finkel, who is the Babe Ruth of Magic: The Gathering. What’s that? Just read it here: A Tale of Two Finkels
And here are a bunch of exclusive author Q&A’s that I am confident you’ll enjoy:
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