George Clooney hitting on Walter Kirn’s girlfriend might have been the most interesting story this Minnesota boy could tell until he became friendly with an impostor who called himself “Clark Rockefeller.”
“I lived in Marine on St. Croix and Shafer, which is right outside of Taylors Falls, where I went to high school,” Kirn, a journalist and successful author, said via e-mail. He’s now a Montana resident, and his latest book, “Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade,” is about his friendship with a murderous grifter it took years for authorities to identify as Christian Gerhartsreiter. A custody battle that prompted Gerhartsreiter to kidnap his daughter led to an arrest that brought his con man’s lifestyle to an end. His identity uncovered, Gerhartsreiter was linked to a California cold case, the 1985 murder of Jonathan Sohus. In 2013 Gerhartsreiter was sentenced to 27 years for Sohus’ murder.
“With its lurid title and bloodstained cover, Walter Kirn’s latest book is bound to be shelved in the crime section,” Nina Burleigh wrote in the New York Times. “But it’s actually about class. A novelist, journalist and memoirist, Kirn is his generation’s aspirational Midwesterner, a boy who goes East [graduates Princeton] and sneaks into the magic circle of the American aristocracy. But no matter how close to the center he gets, he still feels like the little match girl, nose pressed against the window.”
It’s not that journalists aren’t fooled. The problem is that when some of us get duped, we greet the future by assuming most of what we hear is hoax material until proven otherwise. (When I met a Barrymore, I asked to see his driver’s license.)
Kirn suffers no such apparent residual emotions from this colossal con job.
And I have to give Kirn credit for this: I think he figured out charming Clooney. Kirn got to watch the then-confirmed married-once-but-never-again actor while on the set of “Up in the Air,” a movie based on a novel Kirn wrote.
Q: Since this is an e-mail Q&A, how should I go about confirming that you are Walter Kirn?
A: You’re just going to have to take my word for it. Society operates on faith, chiefly because it saves time and it’s less work. To verify the identity of everyone we come into contact with in our daily lives would leave us exhausted by lunch time. It wouldn’t be practical. [Since I don’t have such faith, I wanted to hear Kirn’s voice to determine if he sounded like the guy I saw in a TV interview. He did.]
Q: Has your BS detector ever failed as monumentally as it did during your time with your friend the con man and killer?
A: Given my experience with “Rockefeller,” I’m not sure I have an operational BS detector. I’ve always been a sucker for a good story, and not all good stories are true. What I hate even more than being deceived is being bored, I’ve learned. But sometimes amusement comes at a high price.
Q: Because of this deception, are you a less-trusting person? Is there someone you judged too harshly since getting “punked”?
A: The person I most distrust now is myself. But yes, I’m too suspicious of others at times, particularly of those I meet over the Internet.
Q: For some reason, creepy guys are not as obvious to other men as they are to women. Did any of the women in your life who met “Clark Rockefeller” think something was not quite right?
A: My ex-wife, Maggie McGuane, seemed less enchanted by “Clark” than I was. She told me more than once that he was full of it. I, too, thought he was full of it occasionally, but that didn’t make him a total fake, I thought, just an insecure exaggerator. I spend a lot of time with other writers, so that’s a personality profile I’m used to.
Q: Is there a hole in Christian Gerhartsreiter’s heart or is he just crazy?
A: He has no heart for there to be a hole in. He’s a sociopath, a thorough predator, and people with hearts are his prey. Compassion, to him, is weakness, a kind of idiocy. People who look for humanity in sociopaths are afraid to confront the frightening fact that not everyone who appears human is human.
Q: Was that interview you did OF YOURSELF for the N.Y. Times the best interview ever featuring you?
A: My self-interview was no more revealing than any interview with a writer. A writer creates characters for a living, and the main character he creates is himself. Even Walter Kirn has no idea who the real Walter Kirn is. I think I took myself for a ride in that piece.
Q: Whose conceit was that NYT interview?
A: It was the Times’ idea. Why they wanted to turn their Arts and Leisure section into a version of the Onion that weekend, I’m still not sure. But I applaud their sense of humor.
Q: Describe the underwear you are wearing as you type up responses to my questions. (I learned about his taste in underwear from the NYT piece.)
A: I’m not wearing any underwear at all. Honestly. It’s all in the wash right now. I’m down to about three pairs right now, which seems to happen every couple of months. Soon, I’ll start afresh with a new drawer full. I binge and purge when it comes to underwear.
Q: When did you first start wearing underwear with wild patterns?
A: I started wearing colorful underwear when the mainstream stores started selling it. Why be modest when choosing garments that almost no one else will ever see?
Q: Are you and George Clooney on speaking terms after he hit on your girlfriend while you were on the set of “Up in the Air”?
A: If I knew where to find George Clooney nowadays, I’d be glad to speak to him. I can’t really blame him for doing what comes naturally to a male movie star in his position. Frankly, if he hadn’t hit on her I might have been a tiny bit insulted.
Q: Given all the volunteers Clooney attracts, I was surprised to read that he went after an attached woman.
A: Even Clooney loves a challenge, apparently. I know I would, if I were in his shoes. Just standing there while the whole world throws itself at you must get rather monotonous.
Q: Are you surprised to hear Clooney has decided to get married?
A: He told me on the set that he would never get married, no matter what. He had very good reasons for his position. But I guess a man isn’t truly free unless he’s also free to give up his freedom. It makes me like him more that, like all of us, he can’t always keep his resolutions.
Q: Is Clooney’s hit the most memorable story from your book “Up in the Air” being turned into a movie?
A: The best story has to do with the fact that I wasn’t invited to the Oscars even though the movie was nominated for six awards. I’d promised my 11-year-old daughter that I’d take her to the ceremony, so I was pretty upset. Late one night I got on Twitter and expressed my frustration. The tweet went viral, and was picked up by TMZ, the gossip site, as well as newspapers around the country. Within a few hours I got a call: The studio behind the film had found two tickets for me. A couple of weeks later, there I was, with my daughter beside me, walking on the red carpet. I stepped on the train of Rachel McAdams’ dress and got some ugly looks, but it was worth it.
Q: Where does the best book dialogue for a novel come for you? At that the keyboard? Eavesdropping at parties? Your dreams?
A: I write my dialogue by talking to myself, out loud, in different voices. If you crept up behind me at my desk while I was writing a scene, you’d think I was clinically schizophrenic.
Q: What do you do on the days when nothing is coming to paper?
A: I get in my car and drive with no particular destination, hoping that chance will bring me inspiration. It almost always does.
Q: Do you write every day?
A: I don’t write every day. Not on paper, at least. In my head I write constantly, though. I never stop.
Q: Tell me about your time in Minnesota?
A: I grew up in small towns of under a thousand people, where you know a little about everyone and learn to talk to every type. I can’t think of a better education for a writer. The irony is that the trusting nature this bred in me made me vulnerable to a world-class fraud who I was too polite to challenge.
Q: What did you learn on a Minnesota farm, if anything, that has taken you so far?
A: I learned that the weather is in control, not us. All we control is our reactions to what life hands us. So keep a sense of humor.
Q: How is Montana’s Big Sky different from the heavens above Minnesota? (For example: I can tell you that Minnesota is sunnier than Michigan.)
A: Montana is like Minnesota with mountains but without the bugs and the humidity.
Q: Are you financially set for life?
A: Not even close.
Q: How many takes were required before you captured the appropriate amount of stylin’ and profilin’ for your Twitter photo?
A: That was a Christmas photo taken by the teenage daughter of a friend. The holidays bring out the rebel in me.
Interviews are edited. To contact C.J. try firstname.lastname@example.org and to see her watch Fox 9’s “Buzz.”