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.
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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."
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In the winter of 2005, Tom Reiss took some time out to answer some of our questions:
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Probably Voltaire's Candide, for the way it captures the global human experience in such a small number of pages, and because it prepared me for the 20th century. My great-uncle Lolek, who was like my grandfather and whose own adventures enthralled me, always quoted scenes from Candide to me to make little points about life.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
I have to start with the books that I loved when I was growing up, and which I now read to my older daughter Lucy: the Wizard of Oz series by Frank Baum, because it's really a brilliant portrait of ordinary people living in a crazy world; the Narnia series by C. S. Lewis, because it is such a poignant portrait of human experience in any time; and the Freddy the Pig series by Walter Brooks, because it's such light-handed political allegory.
I've already mentioned Voltaire, and I love Tolstoy's two massive novels for the opposite reasons. I've always been a sucker for tales of adventure, whether the historical romances of Alexandre Dumas -- which are particularly good for their treatment of revenge -- or the scientific or futuristic romances of H. G. Wells or contemporary science fiction writers like Orson Scott Card.
I love Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and Joseph Conrad, but I also love John Buchan, Raymond Chandler, and William Goldman. As a boy I would become devoted to one writer and read absolutely everything by him -- Graham Greene was my passion as a young teenager, for example, possibly because it made me feel worldly and sophisticated -- but often now I just fall in love with a specific book by an author. I don't divide books by genre or conventional "high-low" categories; too many "serious" books are trash and too many "trashy" books are brilliant. I just think books have to be true and ambitious and never boring.
Though I read much more nonfiction, and often fall in love with it, I can think of far fewer titles that stand out as written with the seductive care and grand ambition of my favorite novels. One is Arrow in the Blue, the autobiography of Arthur Koestler. Another is The History of Anti-Semitism, by Leon Poliakov, as well as anything else by that writer, who makes history come alive and captures so much of the human experience, both good and bad, in his grand narrative. Of course one could mention Gibbon and Shakespeare -- suffice to say that my favorite plays are the histories and Hamlet.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
This is tough, because I'm a movie fanatic. But let's deal with some recent likes first: The Big Lebowski is one of my favorite movies, and so is The Life Aquatic. But I really love watching movies with my kids, especially my six-year-old, so when I answer this question now, I'm liable not to think of my favorite movies that are too harsh for kids, like The Godfather, Pulp Fiction, The Three Days of the Condor, or Yojimbo.
I can't wait to begin watching James Bond (Sean Connery primarily) with my kids -- and then most of the Hitchcocks, beginning with North by Northwest, and zany comedies like The In-Laws -- but for the meantime, I love Monsters Inc. and am rediscovering Disney movies like The Jungle Book, with its crazy Louis Prima ape number.
Two of my favorite movies are ones I first saw on TV when I was five years old: Viva Maria, a Louis Malle movie in which Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau play dancers who accidentally invent the striptease and become gun-toting freedom fighters in Mexico, which warped me forever, and The Court Jester, starring Danny Kaye, a spoof of a swashbuckler that actually surpasses most serious examples of the form for brilliant sword-fighting and historical romance. For straight swashbuckling, I stick to anything with Errol Flynn, especially Captain Blood and Robin Hood.
I also love anything with Bogart, especially Casablanca, of course, and let's give the oft-overlooked director of that classic his due: Michael Curtiz was the Steven Spielberg of his age; the same year he directed Bogey and Bergman in Casablanca, he also directed Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy. So you guessed it -- I'm a sucker for the Golden Age of Hollywood, every genre but especially screwball comedy; don't get me started on Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, or Katharine Hepburn, not to mention Marilyn Monroe or Clark Gable -- if my parents hadn't beaten some sort of work ethic into me, I could just watch old movies night and day.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I have a fairly large record collection that is pretty equally divided between 1960s girl groups, 1920s-‘30s jazz, rhythm-and-blues, old country, Mozart, Prokofiev, Brazilian samba, Argentine tango, French chansons, Italian pop.... When I'm writing, I make a strict rule not to listen to music that was made after the period my book is set in. Since The Orientalist took place in the first half of the 20th century, this left me all of music history but the last 60-odd years. But those 60 years were huge -- and it's quite interesting to be deprived of them. When I was writing the chapters on Lev's adventures in the Weimar Republic, I was listening to a lot of the Comedian Harmonists -- a 1920s quartet of German-Jewish musicians who do sublime things with harmony -- and old cabaret music and '20s and '30s jazz. And I always listen to Scott Joplin rags at some point in a project, usually when I need to calm down and retrace my steps.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
I'd love to create a book club devoted to books that were once tremendously popular yet are now mostly forgotten. I might start by reading Greenmantle by John Buchan -- or perhaps Essad Bey's Blood and Oil in the Orient. We begin with the question: Why was this once on everyone's mind? Why did it so disappear from view? I'd also love to do book groups on certain genres that people love but don't discuss that much -- thrillers, for example; there's so much interesting stuff you can talk about when you take a book like Marathon Man or The Big Sleep or the paranoid science fiction novels of Jack London, which make shocking post-9/11 reading.
On the other hand, I'd love to have my club talk about the new Library of America edition of Kaufman & Co.: Broadway Comedies by George S. Kaufman, Edna Ferber, Moss Hart, and Ring Lardner. If I were to pick a serious novel from the past that seems worth discussing now, it would be Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad, because it confronts the limits of individual action in an age of terrorism.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I love old books, quirky things that people have often forgotten or given up on; I love rediscovering lost treasures and sharing them with people. So often I'll give everyone some book from the 1920s or 1930s that I like. I collect all kinds of crazy stuff, including old vintage paperbacks and travel and food guides. I love getting that sort of thing, as well as old movie books. I like to give people new novels or works of history or travel writing or biography I'm crazy about at the moment -- often I give the same book to a dozen people at the holidays -- but it's hard to buy new books for me, because I basically live in bookstores and almost any new book that interests me, I've already bought.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I like to write reclining. I have an old Corbusier lounger that looks like a modernist dentist chair, but before that I always sat in a La-Z-Boy of some sort. I need to have my feet up. Right now I have my feet up on the desk and am sitting back like an old newspaper editor. In fact, it's one of my most uncouth habits -- I always want to put my feet up no matter where I'm sitting. I tend to read a lot before writing -- never just one book, usually more like five or more books, little bits of things. I also "subscribe" to magazines and newspapers from the period I'm writing about -- whether it's the 1890s or the 1930s -- through the wonders of eBay. Before that I used to collect old magazines at flea markets and used-book stores. While I'm writing, I stop reading today's paper and try to only read news from the decade I'm writing about. I do the same thing with food, music -- I just want to feel like I'm in that time and place as much as possible.
What are you working on now?
Another article for The New Yorker about a strange, forgotten man. I'm also doing some preliminary research on my next book, which is also about a strange, forgotten man -- I seem to specialize in these -- but one who was also a great man of action and a hero in fact, not only in his imagination. I get excited about throwing myself into an entirely new period and character. The point of being a writer for me is to be able to travel throughout history.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I've had many disappointments over the years, and I've gotten over them by keeping my sense of "mission" paramount. I love meeting people and talking more than almost anything -- on my street at home, on a corner in Baku, Azerbaijan, or Berlin -- it doesn't matter. I find people endlessly fascinating. I also love meeting people in history. Searching for Lev was the best of both worlds because to unravel his mystery, I had to meet fascinating people around the world and piece together clues from all sorts of strange places. I zeroed in on Lev and didn't let go for five years. The hardest thing for a writer is to find material he/she can stick with and stay excited about despite rejection. Writers have to face rejection their whole lives, no matter whether or not they become successful, because there will always be people who don't get what you're doing. You'll never reach the mountaintop where no one can touch you. You have to find that mountain inside yourself and know how to get back there when you feel under attack.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Follow your passion and stake everything on it. Ignore cynics. Don't take writing workshops unless they make you feel better and write more. Read voraciously. Stop if you're ever not fascinated by what you're writing about. Read some more or do something else. Ignore "good" taste to discover your own taste. Always remember that someday, some poor soul might be stuck on a desert island with only your book to entertain, enlighten, and sustain him until he is rescued -- so please, act accordingly.
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