Hi. I write nonfiction books and magazine stories.
My newest book, The Woman Who Smashed Codes, is about Elizebeth Smith Friedman, a forgotten American hero. She solved the secret messages of gangsters in the Jazz Age and Nazi spies in WWII. This is Elizebeth:
She wasn't a mathematician. She wasn't from a rich or influential family. Born to Indiana Quaker parents in 1892, the last of nine children, Elizebeth Smith studied poetry in college and paid her tuition by working as a seamstress. She was daring and brilliant but saw no jobs for ambitious women. She accepted a position as a schoolteacher in a small Indiana town and worried that her life would never be "anything at all uncommon."
Then, one day when she was 23, a chance meeting with an eccentric multi-millionaire changed everything.
The rich man, a Chicago textile tycoon, believed that the plays of William Shakespeare contained secret messages. He asked Elizebeth to help him find the messages—and whisked her away to a mysterious laboratory on the prairie.
It was the start of an adventure. Through the rich man's sleight of hand and the urgencies of the First World War, the mission for which Elizebeth was hired—find secret messages in Shakespeare—soon turned into a life-or-death hunt for actual enemy secrets.
At the tycoon's laboratory, Elizebeth met a young man from Pittsburgh who wore sparkling white buck shoes and performed experiments on fruit flies: William F. Friedman, now considered to be the godfather of the United States National Security Agency. In no time at all, the two youngsters transformed themselves into the greatest codebreakers of their era. Together Elizebeth and William invented a new science of codebreaking that profoundly shaped the growth of the U.S. intelligence community and still affects our daily lives today.
After the couple moved to Washington D.C. in 1920, Elizebeth launched a spectacular career of her own. During the Prohibition years she used her abilities to catch liquor and drug smugglers, appearing in court with a flower pinned to her hat and testifying against the likes of Al Capone's lieutenants. For a brief time she became famous, a front-page celebrity—before the U.S. government recruited her for one of the most closely guarded missions of the Second World War, whose secrets can now be revealed...
“If I may capture a goodly number of your messages, even though I have never seen your code book, I may still read your thoughts.”
— elizebeth smith friedman, codebreaker
The book will be released in September and is now available for pre-order!
I report and write feature stories for a number of magazines and sites, particularly the Huffington Post Highline, where I'm a contributing editor. (The photo above, from a Highline piece about a trauma surgeon, shows the trauma area at Temple University Hospital in North Philadelphia.) In recent years I've also written for The New York Times Magazine, Wired, GQ, Grantland, Washingtonian, and NewYorker.com.
My earlier books
In 2004 I traveled around the country and the world interviewing competitive eaters and documenting the birth of a weird new sport. The result was HORSEMEN OF THE ESOPHAGUS (Crown, 2005). My next book, INGENIOUS (Crown, 2013), was about small inventors, startups, and garage heroes striving to design and build a radically new kind of car to revive the bankrupt auto industry and save the planet.