The Foreign Service Journal - November 2017

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | NOVEMBER 2017 23 scenes that could have been lifted out of both “The Office” and The Bourne Identity . In Haiti, I did a lot more nonfiction writing, probably because life there needed no fictional embellishment. It took the form of letters to friends and family, describing what I saw and how I reacted when I saw it. When there were only 10 days left in my tour, I wrote a long letter each evening. These letters became essays summarizing my life in Haiti. Looking back at them, I realize that they mark the beginning of my own nonfiction style. There’s a straight line that can be drawn from them to my recent pieces in The New York Times . Beyond a Serious Hobby While in Israel and Haiti, I wrote because it made me happy. By the end of these two tours, writing had become a serious hobby. It was my next posting, in Paris, that transformed this hobby into something else, mainly because I connected with other writers and editors. The friendships I developed lay the foundation for all the books and articles I’ve written since. Midway through my tour in Paris, a friend I had met in Israel came to visit. It wasn’t because we were close friends. As he read- ily admits, it’s because I had an apartment in Paris and offered to put him up for a few days. (That apartment certainly caused my popularity to spike. People I hadn’t heard from in years suddenly got back in touch.) When we met in Israel, he was on a yearlong teaching gig at the American high school near Tel Aviv. Since that time, he had become a nonfiction journalist and a radio producer. During his visit in Paris, we talked about the writing we were both doing and, over the course of a long meal at a Lebanese taverna, we ruminated about writing a young adult book together. He had an idea about a boy who sleepwalks his way into a variety of crazy adventures. It was the start of a writing collaboration that continues to the present day, nearly 15 years later. In Paris I also met two editors working at the International Herald Tribune , when it was still known by that name. (Now it’s the International New York Times .) We had a lot of fun as young Americans in Paris together, and now we’re parents with kids, back stateside. Through it all we’ve remained good friends. Both helped open the door to nonfiction writing, and gave me advice and opportunities. During my next assignment, at the U.S. Mission to the United In Haiti, I did a lot more nonfiction writing, probably because life there needed no fictional embellishment. know all too well—has its own subset of stories. I remember a rather macabre one about a person who lost track of a pet cat during a frenetic one-day pack out. (You know: a flurry of people come in and empty all your drawers in several hours, and sud- denly your life is in boxes and the house smells like packing tape.) As the story goes, this person searched everywhere for their cat, ultimately concluding it had run away. The cat was found months later, very much deceased, in another country. It had curled up in a box to take a nap, and had been packed by mistake. Then there are the myriad stories of living in a foreign coun- try—be it Azerbaijan, Zambia or somewhere in between. The weird foods, the shopkeepers you absolutely have to visit, the adventures and banalities, the smells and sounds that become synonymous with that specific place. I was interested in writing before I joined the Foreign Service, but it was my career as a diplomat that made me a writer. Sur- rounded by all these stories, I never felt stumped by the question, What should I write about? Great stories were everywhere—the hard part was choosing which one to write down. Appreciating Strangeness My first assignment was Tel Aviv, from 1998 to 2000. It’s prob- ably not a coincidence that I began to write at that time. My first attempts were a few short stories now buried deep in the hard drive of an old computer. One of themwas called “Loveseat.” It featured a diplomat named Rick who transferred from one posting to another and, while doing so, lost his mind. The denouement occurred when he spilled tea on the embassy-provided loveseat in his new apartment, and the tea leaves started moving and embed- ding themselves in his skin. It’s a weird story that just petered out because I had no idea how to end it. Other stories were an obvious counterpoint to the strange- ness of my new life. I wrote a lot about growing up in the Midwest, about camping, about old couples that spent their entire lives in the same house. My next assignment was Port-au-Prince. I kept writing short stories, some as weird as “Loveseat,” others more conventional. Haiti profoundly affected me—the heat and wild colors, abject poverty co-existing with the smiles of daily life. I carpooled to the embassy through a warren of narrow alleys also used as open-air car repair shops. I bantered with office co-workers while Marines dressed in riot gear looked out from our windows onto demon- strations in the street below. On any given day, my life included