Tom Reiss's The Orientalist is part history, part cultural biography, and part literary mystery -- tracing the life of Lev Nussimbaum, a Jew who transformed himself into a Muslim prince and became a bestselling author in Nazi Germany. Selected as one of the top ten nonfiction books to read in 2005 by U.S. News & World Report, Reiss's latest work is garnering him praise from fellow authors Azar Nafisi, Paul Theroux, and more.
Tom Reiss has written about politics and culture for The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere.
His first book, Führer-Ex (Random House, 1996), was written with Ingo Hasselbach and was the first inside expose of the European neo-Nazi movement. Hasselbach was the former leader of the East German Neo-Nazis, and had quit the movement in a spectacular manner in 1993. They went to an isolated cabin together in Sweden in the summer of 1994, where Reiss interviewed Hasselbach for the book; a 20,000 word excerpt ran in The New Yorker in 1996.
Tom was born in New York City in 1964 and as a very young boy lived in Washington Heights, a mostly immigrant, German-speaking enclave next to the George Washington Bridge. He grew up in Texas and Massachusetts. At various times in his life, Tom has worked as a journalist, an elementary school teacher, a security guard, a bartender, a producer of industrial videos, and a hospital orderly.
Tom attended Harvard College, where he wrote and edited for the Harvard Crimson and the Harvard Advocate. During a year abroad traveling and working in Japan, he formed a cross-cultural rock band and tried a brief acting career as a silent thug in gangster movies and a romantic Frenchman in car commercials. Reiss then studied with the writer Donald Barthelme in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston.
In the summer of 1989 Barthelme died and later that year the Berlin Wall fell. Reiss found himself shuttling back and forth between Texas and Germany, teaching himself German and searching for his family's European roots. Having begun to interview his surviving relatives about their experiences as Jews in Nazi Europe, he also began interviewing young East German neo-Nazis, fascinated to discover what made them embrace the odious ideology of their grandparents.
A 1998 travel magazine assignment in Baku, Azerbaijan, led Reiss to discover the unsolved mystery of Kurban Said. Far more directly than the neo-Nazi reporting he did in mid-1990s, the quest for this figure became a way for him to search out the lost European world of his family. In Kurban Said, alias Essad Bey and Lev Nussimbaum, a Jewish boy who made himself into a Muslim prince and celebrated author in the heart of Nazi Europe, Reiss found the character he had been waiting his whole life to meet.
Tom lives with his wife and daughters in New York City. He is a self-acknowledged movie fanatic. His favorite pastime is watching old movies with his 2- and 6-year-olds: the Marx Brothers, Busby Berkeley musicals, swashbucklers, and rare cartoons.
Biography courtesy of the author's official web site.
Good To Know
Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Reiss:
"I've worked as a hospital orderly, an elementary school teacher, a security guard, a bartender, a producer of industrial videos, and a gun-toting extra in Japanese gangster movies. I don't think I've ever had a full-time job. I once spent a summer in Sweden with an ex-neo-Nazi fugitive, helping him write a book. I spent another summer in my parents' basement, reading. I like to work in the middle of the night and have breakfast with my kids when I get up. I love walking along bodies of water as big ships pass by. I love trains."
"I like to cook; my wife calls everything I make "Tom's Café," because she thinks I could start a restaurant. My secret: lots of hot sauce, fresh herbs, all recipes are made to be broken. If you ever see "spicy tom" writing food reviews on the web, that's me. When I came back from Baku the first time, I came toting the novels of Kurban Said and a recipe for Azeri fresh herb-yogurt soup and an awesome table-sized salad."
"My favorite way to unwind is watching old movies with my two- and six-year-old girls: Marx Brothers, Busby Berkeley musicals, swashbucklers, old cartoons. In fact, one of my new projects may relate to that."