We all have at least two versions of who we really are. Here are mine...
We all have at least two versions of who we really are. Here are mine...
Jake Halpern is a journalist, bestselling author, and the winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize. His first book, Braving Home (2003), was a main selection for the Book of the Month Club by Bill Bryson. His next book, Fame Junkies (2007), was the basis for an original series on NPR's All Things Considered and portions ofthe book were published in both the New Yorker and in Entertainment Weekly. Jake’s most recent nonfiction book, Bad Paper (2014), was excerpted as a cover story for the New York Times Magazine. It was chosen as an Amazon "Book of the Year" and was a New York Times best seller. Jake’s debut work of fiction, a young adult trilogy, Dormia, has been hailed by the American Library Association's Booklist as a worthy heir to the Harry Potter series. His most recent young adult novel, Nightfall (2015), was a New York Times best seller.
As a journalist, Jake has written for The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated, The New Republic, Slate, Smithsonian, Entertainment Weekly, Outside, New York Magazine, and other publications. In the realm of radio, Jake is a contributor to NPR's All Things Considered and This American Life. Jake's hour-long radio story, "Switched at Birth," is on This American Life's "short list" as one of its top eight shows of all time. Last, but not least, Jake is a fellow of Morse College at Yale University, where he teaches a class on journalism. He recently returned from India where he was visiting as a Fulbright Scholar.
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 teeming 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 Nazis 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. He led me through the back door and into his kitchen. It was a 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.
I was deeply moved by this story and I ultimately spent the next two years turning it into a short film called Ani Mamim, which is now part of the National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. More than anything else this story convinced me that I wanted to dedicate my life to becoming a professional storyteller. This quickly proved difficult – especially when it came to paying the rent – and I was soon working for the man.
After graduating from Yale in 1997, I found myself in a Boston high-rise, cramped in a desk-length cubicle, shirt pressed and starched, summarizing court decisions on insurance law. I can't remember exactly when I realized I had to get the hell out of there, very early on I think, probably around the time I was scolded for hanging a "visually jarring tie" on my coat-rack. I began to feel that I was being watched incessantly; and ultimately, it was this totalitarian, Kafka-esque creepiness that impelled me to leave the job, and as if that weren't enough, the country too.
I set off to Israel where I worked as a writing tutor at the American International School near Tel Aviv. In my spare time, I worked as a freelance journalist. The first piece that I got published appeared in Commonweal in 1998. It chronicled my visit to Hebron in the West Bank – a place infused with a strange mix of religious fundamentalism and Wild West gun-slinging – where Hamas gunman stood poised on street corners as orthodox Jews walked past with holsters and pistols on their belts. As disturbing as all of this was, it was a hell of a lot more interesting than my cubicle back in Boston, and I soon became convinced that I wanted to become a journalist.
After returning from Israel, I landed an internship at The New Republic. My co-workers here were a mix of policy wonks, art critics, and political junkies. I was none of these, and instead of trying to pass as one, I set out to write a different kind of story; yet every time I did, intended up being about some wild and often hellish place, inhabited by a handful of stalwarts who refused to leave. I became a specialist on burning towns, flood plains, and hurricane islands.
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. Some people collected stamps, others pressed leaves, I scavenged for strange and daring homes. 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 full time, self-employed writer.
While I was working on Braving Home, I carried a digital audio recorder, which allowed me to capture all of my encounters with “broadcast quality” recordings. With the help of my friend, Ted Gesing, I was able to turn these recordings into a five part series on National Public Radio's All Things Considered (Weekend Edition). I loved doing this work for NPR and I have gone on to become a contributor to All Things Considered (Weekday) and This American Life. The other cool byproduct of writing Braving Home was that I began receiving commissions to do journalistic pieces for publications like the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, and the Wall Street Journal.
In the years since then, I’ve gotten married and become a father – I have two small sons. Now we all travel as a family. Not along ago, we all moved to India and spent a year there. My wife, who is a doctor, got a grant from the National Institute of Health and I won a Fulbright. But really we were just craving a bit of adventure.
I was tired of the workaday routine of my life in Connecticut – going to Costco, working out at the gym, passing out at night watching “The Wire” on my iPad. I was tired of picking up my little kids at daycare at precisely 5 PM, checking an excel spreadsheet to see how many bowel movements they made per hour, and then putting down my initials, my approval, as if to say: yes, marvelous, all is well, all is how it should be. I was tired of living a sensible, orderly life governed by rational decisions. I wanted to be back in India, where the priests beat the gongs in the temples with relentless fury, as if to say: wake up you comatose fool, be here, right now, before your life passes you by. Looking back, it seems like a romantic and somewhat clichéd notion. But at the time, I assure you, I was very earnestly itching to get the hell out of dodge.
While in India I continued with my nonfiction. I wrote a long story – Secrets of the Temple – for the New Yorker about an ancient temple where they discovered a treasure worth $20 billion dollars. 20th Century Fox is now developing that story into a movie. You can read the story in the journalism section of this website.
Nowadays, I divide my time between producing radio pieces, doing magazine articles, and writing books. And the books aren’t all nonfiction. I have a fantasy series for young adults that I write with my friend, Peter Kujawinski. When I'm not working, I enjoy traveling to remote places and hiking in the woods with my wife and sons.