Be Bold, Be Brave


Two authors set me on the path to becoming a writer. They did not offer advice on their craft, but wrote books that served as guides to living when I was entering adulthood and needed them. From them I understood that the only life I wanted was that of a writer. I will forever be in their debt.

Nikos Kazantzakis was the first, and the book, Zorba the Greek.

Kazantzakis wrote that Zorba, whom he based on a real person, had “taught [him] to love life and not fear death.” There was nothing shy about this lustful man of the earth, and much that was bold. One of Zorba’s lines—“Life is trouble. Only death is not. To be alive is to unfasten your belt and look for a fight”—liberated me and has remained embedded in my consciousness since I first read it, in Corinth, in 1982. I would not seek out trouble, but in the various expeditions I’ve undertaken for my books, I haven’t shied away from it. Problems make good subject material.

The second was Leo Tolstoy, and his novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Ivan Ilyich, in Tolstoy’s portrayal, was a state functionary who had lived exactly as social conventions told him to, with the result that “his life story was the simplest, most ordinary, and most horrible.” When he falls mortally ill, he finally grasps the empty falsity of his existence as he is about to die. He can do nothing before expiring but annoy his family members with cries of grief. Reading about his fate persuaded me to treasure my time and pursue my dreams.

After absorbing these books, I set out to live my life as an epic novel with the end known beforehand, but with every moment to be savored. I just knew that would give me something to write about. I have no regrets.


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Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and the author of seven books, including Facing the Congo, Angry Wind and River of No Reprieve: Descending Siberia’s Waterway of Exile, Death, and Destiny.


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