David Oliver Relin is a Portland-based writer and the author of the New
York Times bestseller Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote
Peace...One School at a Time. He is currently a Contributing Editor
for Parade. For two decades, Relin has focused on reporting about
social issues and their effect on children, both in the U.S., and around
the world. He has won dozens of national awards for his work as both an
editor and investigative reporter. His interviews with child soldiers have
been included in Amnesty International reports. And his investigation into
the way the INS abused children in its custody contributed to the reorganization
of that agency.
Three Cups of Tea has been on the New
York Times’ bestseller list for the past year, a significant accomplishment.
At what point did you realize this book had the potential to be a big
As soon as I sat down and began interviewing Greg Mortenson, his colleagues,
supporters, and enemies. I’ve been a journalist for more than 20 years,
and Greg’s adventures building schools for girls in rural Pakistan and
Afghanistan struck me as one of the most remarkable stories I’d ever heard.
Why do you think the book has been so popular?
I think at this point in history, Americans are hungry for a more sane
approach to foreign policy. We’ve all been bludgeoned over the last five
years by the failures of fighting the war on terror by military means
alone. The work of the Central Asia Institute presents a model alternative:
Address the root causes of terrorism – poverty and ignorance – by improving
children’s lives with education and giving them hope. People have really
embraced that idea, and passed the book on to friends, family and policymakers.
What first attracted you to this story?
Not long after 9/11, I was asked by a large glossy magazine to work as
a war correspondent. I had no desire to become embedded in what I believed
to be a terrible mistake. I wanted to publicize the efforts of someone
who I felt was fighting the war on terror in the way I believed it should
be fought—by addressing the disease of ignorance, not the symptoms associated
with people named Saddam or Osama.
How did this book project come to be?
Greg and I were introduced by a magazine editor. Greg asked me to write
his story. I agreed, and began chasing him around the world over the
course of several years.
What type of research went into this book?
I interviewed Greg at length, of course. We also pored over old photos
and videotapes of his trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Beyond that,
I conducted over 200 interviews with people who had worked with Greg,
CAI staff and supporters in the U.S. and Pakistan, the children and village
leaders whose lives had been changed by Greg’s work, and anyone else
I could think of who could bring another facet of this story into focus.
So much of the story revolves around Mortenson’s work and adventures
in Pakistan and Afghanistan. As a writer, did you feel the need to visit
and spend time in the places Mortenson had stayed?
Absolutely. As a journalist, I’ve lived and worked in Asia often over the
last two decades. I know how badly foreign writers can bungle a story when
they don’t make the effort to immerse themselves in another culture. So
I made three trips, traveling with and without Greg, to the remote mountain
communities of Northern Pakistan. If I hadn’t, Three Cups of Tea would
have been a different book.
With the success of Three Cups of Tea,
it seems you’ve been traveling quite a bit giving talks around the country.
You have 10 speaking engagements in February alone. How are you able
to find time for creative projects with such a busy schedule?
I don’t know. Do you have any good ideas? Hey, what’s happening with Three
Cups of Tea now is every writer’s dream. I wrote the book because
I hoped to influence the conversation about how America should conduct
itself in the world. So now that people are listening, I’ll travel and
yak about the subject as often as audiences will have me.
Three Cups of Tea wasn't a co-written
book, but you share a byline with the main character, Greg Mortenson.
How did that come about?
That’s been the only negative thing about this whole adventure for me.
After I turned in the manuscript, I received a galley back from the publisher
with two names on it. It was published that way over my objections.
You tend to write about social issues, especially as they relate
to children. What attracts you to such topics?
I believe in the late Grace Paley’s admonition that it is the writer’s
duty to learn truth from the powerless and speak truth to the powerful.
I understand you are working on three projects right now, a secret
book about food, a children's book, and a novel about Vietnam. How are
you able to balance three large projects in such disparate genres?
Actually four. I’ve just been asked to write a documentary film about Sherpa
mountain climbers. It doesn’t seem that odd to me. I always have half a
dozen partially read books lying around my house, idling their engines,
while I alternate between them. The strange, episodic life of traveling
and talking lends itself to writing in fits and starts. One of the projects
just seems to present itself as the most appropriate one to tackle in a
particular hotel lobby or airport lounge.
For you, how does writing a novel compare to writing nonfiction?
What are the similarities and differences in the writing processes?
During the “acquisition phase,” where you’re soaking up material, there
isn’t much difference. At least for me. I’ve made two reporting trips to
the former DMZ for my current “novel” about landmine survivors in postwar
Vietnam. I’ve traveled with NGOs doing de-mining work and providing prosthetic
limbs for the children who still stumble into unexploded ordnance every
day in Central Vietnam. But when you begin assembling the shards of that
research into fiction, the freedom to swerve and follow the most dramatic
and entertaining narrative line is exhilarating.
Can you tell us any more about the secret project about food?
Why is it so secret?
I’m trying to limber up different writing muscles, by writing about a far
less serious subject. That’s the same reason I’m working on a children’s
book. I’m keeping the subject of the food book secret because I’m trying
to prevent a copycat book from appearing. Have you ever noticed that suddenly,
two books about the history of sushi, say, or artichokes, are released
at the same time. The publishing world is pretty creepy that way.
What writers do you look to for inspiration?
Nabokov for language. And Graham Greene for narrative drive and atmosphere.
Greene’s ability to place a reader in a culture, any culture, and make
them feel the daily texture of the place is something I admire tremendously.
I’m always curious, what are you reading now?
Half a dozen things, of course. But the one I’m enjoying most is the Lonely
Planet Guide to India. I’m traveling to write about girl’s education
initiatives in India and Bangladesh this spring and I’m poring through
the mammoth guidebook like a novel, inhaling the possibilities for un-missable
side trips, exotic street food and fascinating chaos.