More About the Author
When I was twenty years old, I took some time off from college and moved to Prague. It was the sort of inspired, half-baked decision that you can only make when you are twenty and clueless. A few weeks into my stay in Prague, I found an apartment and settled into a routine of doing very little ' wandering around the city, reading, and living off the money I'd saved. Almost immediately I sensed that it was a special time to be living there. This was back in 1995, and the city was teaming with artists, expatriates and lingering tourists, living in two-dollar-a-night hostels. Everyone there was writing a novel, or a play, or at least some essays. The apartment that I took over ' a drafty subterranean vault beneath a neighborhood pub ' had been the home of a long string of expatriated Americans before me, and the closets were filled with an array of dusty, discarded and abandoned manuscripts, most of them uncompleted.
Eventually, I got swept up in the bohemian spirit of it all and set to work on piece of writing of my own, a screenplay to be precise. The screenplay, which was called the Papaya Trap, was about a con artist who falls in love with a beautiful one-armed girl.
The truly transformative event of my time in Prague, however, was my decision to investigate my family's roots in this part of the world. I knew that some of my ancestors had once lived in Prague, and on a whim I telephoned my great-uncle (Joe Garray) in America, and asked him if we had any relatives who were still here. "No they all perished in the holocaust," he said. But I kept pushing him and eventually he told me that the man who saved him from the Germans still lived in a farm house in Slovakia at the edge of the Tatra Mountains. A week later I took a commuter plane to Bratislava and then a train to the small town where this man lived.
I showed up at his door after sundown and he came to the gate cautiously, leaning heavily on a wooden cane, face trembling and bald except for a few long loops of white hairs, his feet engulfed in a swarm of mutts who guarded his every step. After trying to explain who I was for almost five minutes, he led me through the back door and into his kitchen. It was bare room, illuminated in dingy fluorescent light, occupied only by a few stools, a couch covered in dog hairs, and a hissing radiator. Here he told me about hiding my uncle and their numerous close calls with the Slovak Gestapo. When the situation at the farmhouse became too heated, they fled to the mountains in the cold of winter and lived like hermits for six months. More than anything else this story convinced me that I wanted to dedicate my life to becoming a professional storyteller.
After college, I landed an internship at The New Republic. My chief responsibility at the magazine was researching and fact-checking. I spent hours, days, and weeks looking for correct spellings and exact dates. Being a quick fact-checker was always a point of pride among the office grunts like myself, and though it was an obscure and largely useless skill, I found it quite helpful in tracking down information on dangerous and outlandish towns. On my lunch breaks and in between assignments I searched for clues, and gradually I found them ' reports of holdouts living on lava fields, windswept sandbars, and desolate arctic glaciers. I spent Sunday afternoons combing the web with a smattering of search terms like 'squatter,' 'won't leave home,' and 'people call him crazy.' I became friendly with the press office at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and I pumped them for ideas. It turned into something of a hobby.
Eventually, the short magazine pieces that I wrote on people and their homes attracted the interest of a literary agent who convinced me to write a book, which I then did. This book ' Braving Home (Houghton Mifflin, 2003) ' allowed me to quit my job and become a fulltime, self-employed writer.