What was the best thing about writing this book? The research, the travel. All over America, time after time. I also love the writing process, tucked away as I am in my lonesome little farm. The writing yes; editing, not so much.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? I wanted to join the Royal Navy. But they found I was red-green colour-blind, of which the Navy takes a pretty dim view. Literally.
What other jobs have you had? I have been, variously, a waiter, a mortuary assistant, a Shredded-Wheat toy-packer, a field geologist in Uganda, an oil-rig geologist, a general assignment reporter, and then for thirty-odd years, a foreign correspondent for The Guardian and The Sunday Times, based in Belfast, Washington, New Delhi, New York, London and Hong Kong.
What was the most interesting thing you discovered when writing this book? The location of the Point of Beginning, the little-known obelisk outside the worn-out city of East Liverpool, Ohio, from which point all of western American land was surveyed, to allow it to be sold to individual Americans, as Thomas Jefferson had pledged.
What do you love most about America? The total equality of opportunity for people – all people, more or less equally – who are ambitious, energetic and determined – to make the best of their lives.
What was one of the best things that happened because of this book? The National Geographic is to make a five-part television series based on it. And I gave my first TED talk.
What traditions from your childhood do you continue? I warm the pot before making tea. I continue to prefer Marmite to Vegemite (begging your pardon). I still listen to The Archers, now live-streaming, on the BBC.
Do you collect anything? Stamps from the Chinese Treaty Ports.
What is something that most people might be surprised to know about you? I can’t swim and am irrationally frightened of water.
What are you working on next? A biography of the new, post-1950s Pacific Ocean.
Read my review of ‘The Men Who United the States; Inventors and Mavericks Who Made America’ here.