2. Your previous book, Searching for Sofia, deals with the Kosovo War in the late nineties. As a war correspondent during that time it makes sense that you’d tell this story. What brought you back in time to the story of the First Special Service Force in A Perfect Hell?I always wanted to write a WWII book mainly because my parents were of that generation. They spoke of the war a lot when I was growing up, and over time I felt somehow connected to that epoch. My mom talked about the war years more than my dad. She of course spoke of watching the boys leave for Europe and the Pacific, and the helplessness and fear of waiting on the home front. This is one element I tried to inject in A Perfect Hell: showing the connection between the men on the frontline and the families at home. One thing I learned was that nothing on a battlefield happens in isolation. Every casualty reverberates somewhere else: creating grief, changing lives, sometimes destroying lives. As much as anything, the book helped me to come to terms with the legacy of the WWII generation, now that this generation is disappearing.
3. Reading A Perfect Hell, I was struck by the great sympathy you clearly have for the soldiers, and the respect you have for their experiences. The same is true in Searching for Sofia. It comes through in your word choice and the way you construct scenes and elaborate characters. Who do you think are your biggest influences as a writer?
As a teenager, I guess I was most influenced by the new journalists of the ’60s and ’70s: George Plimpton, Gay Talese, Peter Maas, Truman Capote, Jimmy Breslin, Tom Wolfe, and even Hunter Thompson, writers who pioneered the use of literary techniques to tell a non-fiction story. This technique seemed to create new vistas in journalism that even as a young guy I was really excited by. A fascinating sub-genre was the participatory journalism of Plimpton’s Paper Lion and Thompson’s Hells Angels, which inspired me in Searching for Sofia because circumstances demanded that I be part of the story. A Perfect Hell is straight narrative, but for me it was a fascinating writing experience because it was a literary non-fiction exercise, a journalistic exercise (based on my interviews with veterans), and a chance to try my hand at popular history.
4. A lot of our visitors are writers, or budding writers, and as such are interested in how one ends up where you are, publishing books, writing articles, and generally making a living off of words. Can you give us a little of your history? How did you break into journalism in the first place? What led you to the publication of your first book?
My two biggest career steps were, firstly, to re-locate in Europe in 1992; and, secondly, to push for assignments to cover the Kosovo war. I didn’t have to push hard. An editor recently reminded me: ‘Half of life is showing up.’ Kosovo was a perfect example. This story was there in my backyard, it was major, and all I had to do was show up for it. It’s fortunate I did. My first hours in Kosovo I encountered the story that later became Searching for Sofia. But in truth, Sofia would never have happened without the support and blind faith of Maya Mavjee and Nick Garrison at DoubleDay Canada. Searching for Sofia also helped me connect with a great agency, Writers House, which sold A Perfect Hell. So it is true: half of life is simply jumping on those opportunities that suddenly appear.
5. You’ve lived in Budapest for many years now, and have by all appearances “settled” here. What’s that like, making a home in a foreign land? Do you advise other writers to follow your path?
I don’t know that the expatriate life is for everyone. One drawback, at least for writers, is that you lose perspective on home. So definitely it would be the wrong choice for the likes of Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis. But as the Olen Steinhauers and the Arthur Phillips of the world prove, a foreign venue can offer up new troves of material. But removing oneself from the popular culture of home has one great advantage: it is an intellectual hermitage. Meaning, by removing yourself from pop-culture distractions (like TV for one), you can focus on the task at hand, namely writing. As a journalist, foreign locales offer up more interesting stories. I’ve had the good fortune of watching the former East Bloc move from the communist epoch to democracy: an unprecedented transition that I’ve felt privileged to witness. And happily the story is still not over.