Where are you from?
I was born, raised, and went to college all within twenty miles of Ithaca, New York.
Who are your favorite writers?
Hemingway and Capote. Susan Orlean, Calvin Trillin, John McPhee, Tim Egan. Ted Conover for his frank and personal accounts of obscure lives that deserve light. Tracy Kidder for his humanistic attention to detail.
Which book/books have had the biggest influence on your writing?
Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City showed me the potential for reconstructing historical research into vivid, unfolding, accurate narrative, as did Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action. And in Coming into the Country, John McPhee delivered his first of many lessons on how the mundane or scientific can be made fascinating as long as it is written exceedingly well.
What is the single best piece of advice anyone ever gave you?
My mom taught me that barriers can be overcome by seeing yourself on the other side—a more nuanced version of achieving through believing.
Not too many years ago my editor at Fortune, Robert Friedman, gave me more practical advice: “Check it again.”
What are your hobbies and outside interests?
Most things that happen fast, physically, and outdoors. I’m an avid rock climber, mountain biker, backcountry skier, and ocean kayaker. And by the same token, I am captivated by our natural environment, as well as news and issues relating to it. I used to work as a photographer, but now taking pictures is more of a personal pursuit. Then there is art and architecture, design, reading, and trying to make my dog do what I tell her to.
What inspired you to write your first book?
I’ve always thought a book would come when a piece of reporting sat with me for so long, and gathered so much dynamic depth and interesting paths, that there was little choice left but to write it. When I was researching and reporting on Tibet, I realized there was simply no way I could ever provide the historical background necessary for understanding today’s developments in the space of a magazine article; the story needed more room, and that inspired me to tackle this first book.
What made you interested in Tibet?
I met the Dalai Lama when I was six years old. As soon as I was old enough to think freely I was captivated and romanced by the enigma of Tibet, the Himalayas, and Buddhist thought. More recently, my professional reporting on globalization and the environment drew me to China’s great project to build a railway to Lhasa. It was a dream opportunity.
What was the most eye-opening moment during your time there?
Everything in Tibet is eye opening. But one moment rises above the fray. It was an encounter with a young monk who was studying Tibetan medicine. I wrote about it in the book. In a few short minutes and despite a language barrier, he correctly diagnosed a friend’s medical condition simply by feeling her pulse. It was a haunting experience that proved to me the validity and sophistication of Tibetans’ insights, intuitions, and mysterious spiritual practices. Later, I discovered that there are many Western doctors who have come to the same conclusion.
What is the most fascinating place you’ve traveled to?
Besides Tibet, which probably takes the crown, it was Iran. For three weeks I traveled and skied in its high mountains and rock climbed remote cliffs along the Iraqi border. Along the way I met cultured, sophisticated, gracious, and ambitious people who opened my eyes to their views on the world. I left with a rich sense of place and of history.
Are there any experiences you never want to repeat in your travels?
Years ago I visited Morocco, touring with friends. Some people that we met on our trip turned on us and ended up holding us hostage, at knife-point, in a small room in a rural village somewhere between Tangier and Marrakesh. They wanted vast sums of money, but we were traveling by our bootlaces. After three days we managed a midnight escape from the rooftop.
Then there was the time I unwittingly ended up on a bus with some drug runners, who were also traveling from Istanbul to Zagreb, just months before the war erupted in Kosovo.