Describe your latest book.
A Mind Unraveled
is a book unlike any I’ve written. My first three were each about corporate fraud. My fourth was about the global fight against international terrorism. For the first time, I have turned away from reporting about the actions of others and turned the microscope onto myself.
My new book is a memoir of sorts, about my decades spent dealing with intractable epilepsy. My decision to write the book — which required me revisiting many extremely horrible experiences — evolved over time. In 2010, officials from a number of epilepsy organizations met and decided that people with epilepsy needed to step forward, to discuss having the condition, so as to take it out of the shadows. As someone who was told essentially that my life was over at the time of my diagnosis, I also believed that there was a need for someone to prove to young people with epilepsy that, in most cases, it does not need to stop them from reaching their goals. Finally, a big push came from my wife, who is a physician and who said recounting my experiences would provide enormous help to people like her patients who face significant trauma. My wife also played another important role: There were many events in my life that I did not want to revisit because of the emotional damage they inflicted on me. But she said this book would only work if I was honest about everything. So, I told all.
The most traumatic part of doing the book came after digging up voluminous diaries — written and recorded — that I kept for more than a decade during the worst parts of this experience. Day after day, I had to listen to myself recount endless trauma, knowing that the person speaking had no idea if he would ever survive the experience. I also listened for the first time to old tapes from my parents, my friends, and my doctor, often revealing things I never knew. I found I could work for only a short time each day until the emotional impact of reliving these experiences overwhelmed me.
I faced discrimination, medical incompetence, suicidal thoughts, loss of friends. But at the same time I discovered true, lifelong friends who stood by me, doctors who saved my life, and the means of surviving and flourishing after significant trauma. In the end, despite all the difficulty in writing it, the book did provide some catharsis for me. Throughout the decades, the horrible episodes were a mishmash in my head, each independent from the other. I did not understand why certain things had occurred, I did not see how one event led to another. This was all memories of chaos. By reviewing the tapes and other records, interviewing people who were there, etc., I have finally come to understand how the formative events of my life occurred and how each of them were connected.
I have provided the manuscript and advanced reader copies to many people who know me to see their reactions to the events described. I feared that my experiences were so horrible that they were not representative of what other people with epilepsy go through. Perhaps the most disappointing element for me is to have been told by people from different epilepsy organizations that none of what I wrote was unfamiliar to them as things those with seizures go through, both medically and socially. On the other hand, that was also important to me because the book then can serve as a support to those with this condition, and not simply as a collection of horror stories.
The biggest surprise to me from the readers who have no familiarity with epilepsy was the number of them who said the book gave them insight into their own lives and how they face challenges. But I realized that made sense. My thoughts and approaches to dealing with trauma are not epilepsy-specific, but can be applied to anything, even issues having nothing to do with health. Several of the early readers said it led them to reconsider elements of their lives.
The result is that there are many things that this book can accomplish: help people with epilepsy, educate the public about the condition, help people facing other challenges, or simply provide readers with a challenging but inspirational story.
What was your favorite book as a child?
Two books, both provided to me by my third grade teacher. I adored him, and he inspired my love of reading. The books were A Wrinkle in Time
and Once the Hodja
When did you know you were a writer?
In June, 1982, while in a hospital. At that point, I was a terrible writer, but I was sick and thinking about what I wanted to do with my life. I realized I would love to write, to be a journalist. I knew that writing was like any craft, and just required practice, so I dedicated myself to trying.
What does your writing workspace look like?
I’ve worked in a home office for 17 years. When I am in the midst of an investigative project, it looks like a tornado hit the place, with documents and tape recordings everywhere. In between, it is just a normal office.
What do you care about more than most people around you?
Standards. That means a lot of things. As a journalist, that means getting it right — not being arrogant enough to think we traffic in truth, since truth is too complex a concept to be reduced even to a book. But we must meet the standards of accurate and fair, which requires us to speak to every person involved without having a preconception of what the story is. In my personal life, that means living my values — telling the truth, being available for my family no matter the circumstances, helping people in need regardless of the potential sacrifice. On the last one, my wife and I sometimes go too far, but I would rather be that kind of person than one who holds back on helping.
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
We held an estate sale when we downsized our house after our last child headed to college. I decided to sell some of my books, promotional materials for them, and even original documents. A fan of my work came in and purchased huge amounts of material — every book, posters, reviews, and an array of documents. I spent easily an hour signing everything for him, per his request.
Tell us something you're embarrassed to admit.
My wife and I are huge fans of Project Runway
, and binge-watch it on Hulu.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
There are so many to choose from, but I vote for Bryan Burrough. On many levels he inspired me to become an author, and he writes truly captivating books about an array of issues. I would probably start with Public Enemies
, but if crime doesn’t meet your interests, then Barbarians at the Gate
or The Big Rich
Besides your personal library, do you have any beloved collections?
I have a large number of guitars, and I love to play them. When I have time.
What's the strangest job you've ever had?
Many strangest. I would pick the time I was a “premium specialty ad sales representative” — a long name that meant I sold companies pens that had their names on them. I also sold corporate name-emblazoned key chains, frisbees, ice scrapers, and the like. I was surprised to find I was really good at the job. It also taught me how to persuade people in phone calls, which proved enormously helpful when I moved on to the job of reporter.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
What scares you the most as a writer?
Getting the story wrong.
If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
He Tried His Best — A Life of Effort and Aspiration
Offer a favorite passage from another writer.
“I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire...I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all of your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.” — William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
Share a sentence of your own that you're particularly proud of.
"They feel the need to portray themselves as tough, swashbuckling champions of right, standing astride the waves of history as they fight back encroaching evil. But they are none of these things. They are soft-skinned, well fed, and snug, pontificating from air-conditioned studios as piles of uneaten snacks grow stale on nearby tables."
Describe a recurring dream or nightmare.
I relive in my dreams many of my most traumatic experiences from my years of uncontrolled seizures. The worst is the dream where I once again am buried in a snow-drift, awakening post-seizure, and trying to crawl to safety.
What's your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
The modern use of the word “Anyway” as “Anyways.” Not really grammatical, but for me it far outweighs ending a sentence with a preposition.
Do you have any phobias?
I have a number brought on by my years of seizures. Open oven doors, boiling water, and very sharp knives are the strongest.
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
I love YouTube. Particularly the animations.
What's the best advice you’ve ever received?
When I was terrified about my grades in college, a professor told me not to look at them anymore and just focus on my education. I did so, and was stunned four years later when I graduated with distinction. I literally thought my grades were bad and was stunned to find that focusing on learning brought the grades, while worrying about the grades blocked the learning.
What is your formula for how to live a happy life?
Always maintain an aspiration for your future, then do everything in your power to achieve it.
My Top Five Most Personally Influential Books
I could never list the greatest books of all time because, put simply, I haven’t read them all. It is difficult, also, to use the word “Greatest” even on a single subject. How can we judge the greatest? Wouldn’t the Shakespeares
fill every list? So my list is far more limited: The books I have read that I have most loved, or that had the greatest influence on my thoughts and my writing.
The Sound and the Fury
by William Faulkner
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich
by William Shirer
The Complete Stories
by William Shawcross
Guns, Germs, and Steel
by Jared Diamond
÷ ÷ ÷
has written for The New York Times
for more than 17 years. A two-time winner of the George Polk Award for Excellence in Journalism and a finalist for the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting, he has been selected repeatedly for the TJFR Business News Reporter as one of the nation’s most influential financial journalists. A Mind Unraveled
is his most recent book.