On a ferry into Beirut that had just squeaked past several rounds of Syrian cannon fire, a fellow traveler commended Tony Horwitz for being jusqu'au boutiste, or "right to the edge" -- explaining that "It mean you are very brave. And maybe very stupid." As a former Wall Street Journal reporter and current New Yorker staff writer, Horwitz has gone places most of us are either not brave -- or stupid -- enough to venture to, and returned with a collection of absorbing, affecting, often hilarious tales set in locales from the Sudan to the American South.
Horwitz's intercontinental roamings started when he married fellow reporter Geraldine Brooks and followed her to her native Australia. His first book, One for the Road, recounts his adventures hitchhiking across the Australian Outback. When Brooks got an assignment as a foreign correspondent in Cairo in 1987, Horwitz went along, looking for the kind of quirky feature stories that as a freelance writer he might sell to editors back in the States. His second book, Baghdad Without a Map, zings around the Middle East, from a qat-chewing party in Yemen to a leper colony in Sudan, from the aforementioned ferry ride to an almost equally terrifying flight on Egyptair. It was a national bestseller, praised by The New York Times Book Review as "a very funny and frequently insightful look at the world's most combustible region."
After moving to Virginia in 1993, Horwitz embarked on a different kind of travel, producing another bestseller. Confederates in the Attic describes his journey across the South and his quest to understand the impact of the Civil War on contemporary America. He meets "hardcore" reenacters who soak brass buttons in urine for just the right patina, earnest Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy, drunken biker Klansmen, and even a few ordinary people who happen to live south of the Mason-Dixon line. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution called the book "Good natured and generously funny: moving, chilling, and beautiful."
Horwitz then returned to world travel, this time spurred by an obsession with the eighteenth-century explorer Captain James Cook. For Blue Latitudes, Horwitz visits the islands charted by Cook, intertwining his own travel narrative with the life and writings of the once-famous captain. "Despite the historical focus, Horwitz doesn't stray too far from the encounters with everyday people that gave his previous books such zest," Publishers Weekly noted in a starred review.
Though Horwitz is the kind of breezy, pithy writer who "could make a book on elevators interesting" (The Philadelphia Inquirer), critics seem to agree that his genius is for getting to know people on his travels. Whether he's chatting with a Yemeni arms dealer, a Confederate widow or the King of Tonga, Horwitz likes "to get inside the heads of those I'm writing about by sharing their experiences," as he said in an interview on his publisher's Web site. "The same goes for history: while I wouldn't pretend that I can know what it was to be a Civil War soldier or a sailor aboard one of Cook's ships, I can try to get a better understanding of it." Those of us who aren't so jusqu'au boutiste can improve our understanding simply by turning Horwitz's highly entertaining pages.
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The hardest part of researching Blue Latitudes, Horwitz said in a History House interview, was working aboard a replica of Cook's first ship, the Endeavour. "[It] was a challenge, to say the least, to find myself atop the 127-foot main mast, in heavy seas, trying to furl sails. It was like lifting weights while being shaken from the top of a very tall tree."
Before becoming a journalist, Horwitz worked for a pulpwood haulers' union in Mississippi. He produced a television documentary about the experience, "Mississippi Wood."
Horwitz was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in journalism for a Wall Street Journal series on working conditions in low-wage jobs.
His wife, Geraldine Brooks, was also a Wall Street Journal reporter before she began writing fiction. The two live in Virginia with their son, Nathaniel.
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