Charles Graeber is drinking bourbon when we first meet at 12 Degrees East in downtown Nantucket. A stack of his overnight bestseller The Good Nurse, which he wrote in an attic just up the street from here, sits beside him on the bar. Signing the last copy, he throws back the bourbon and then motions to the bartender for another double. At forty-three years old, Graeber is in-demand, with editors of top magazines calling him up asking what he wants to write about next. And yet among the many stories that built his writing career, Charles Graeber’s own might just be the most interesting.
At six-feet-and-change with intense, arresting eyes, there is something rough-and-tumble about Charles Graeber that comes out in his writing. He doesn’t so much tell his stories as heave them like flaming Molotov cocktails that set your worldview on fire. His literary currency is his voice, the sheer force of which conjures the likes of Hunter S. Thompson and Jack Kerouac. But twenty years ago, when he decided to go pro as a writer and poet, it was Graham Greene, the travel writer and MI6 spy of the 1930s that Graeber wanted to be most like. “I decided I was going to be this sort of literary cowboy capitalist involved in elicit snake milking and oil deals and wild characters,” Graeber tells me, the Kentucky bourbon wafting off his every word. “I’d make my fortune or at least see what’s happening and write something great about it.” Thus began his life off the grid, a time so unbelievable and so bizarre that perhaps the most amazing thing about it is he survived.
His stories go on and on, clicking from one outrageous account to the next like rounds in a revolver. Joining the circus in East Berlin. Forging a Visa to get into Uzbekistan. Meeting the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala. Studying Tibetan medicine under a group of monks. Driving off a cliff during the Baja 2000. Living in Cambodia between the civil wars. Riding atop the Sihanoukville Express “Death Train” through the Elephant Mountains. Arriving at the Brandenburg Gate in time to help pull down the Berlin Wall. Climbing a volcano during an eruption in Guatemala. Dragging a rowboat up the River Ganges in India. Betting his last $100 in a vodka-drinking contest in Phnom Penh. Crossing Haiti on horseback. Piranha fishing in the Pantanal. Falling in love, evading death, going mad and losing it all—over and over. Yet no matter where his adventures took him, no matter how many times he went for broke, Graeber always returned to the same place to collect himself and to write.
“This is the place I come when the world kicks my ass,” he says, leading me up two flights of stairs in his family’s home on Ash Street. The attic is everything one might hope for in a writer’s study, complete with rustic exposed beams, old photographs and talismans from his many adventures. He reaches up to the windowsill and pulls down a dusty bottle of bourbon. “This bottle of Japanese Wild Turkey came out of a liquor store in the tsunami in the ruined city of Kamaishi where I was living,” he says. “Mr. Kenji Sano, who was eighty years old and who I spent a lot of time with gave this to me.”
In 2011, Bloomberg Businessweek flew Graeber to Japan in the wake of the tsunami with instructions “to get as deep as you can into the destruction zone and bear witness.” His resulting 10,000-word cover story is a staggering piece of reporting that earned him the Overseas Press Club Award for “Best International Reporting.” This past spring, Graeber was nominated for a National Magazine Award for his profile of a swash-buckling Internet pirate named Kim Dotcom for Wired magazine. Again he deployed his dogged on-the-ground tactics to bring readers into the inner workings of the most wanted cyber criminal in the world.
Graeber’s most recent success story is The Good Nurse, a New York Times bestseller about a deranged serial killer responsible for at least forty deaths on the East Coast. The book is a horrifying page-turner that was seven years in the making. “The most prolific serial killer in American history was talking only to me, and I discovered there was a cover up in hospitals over sixteen years,” he says. Graeber, who attended a year of medical school at Tulane between his adventures abroad, went from hospital to hospital dissecting the twisted story of a nurse who killed patients indiscriminately for well over a decade. The press coined the murderer, Charles Cullen, the “Angel of Death,” and he was sentenced to seventeen consecutive life sentences. Beyond the horror of the murders, Graeber reveals the grave negligence of the hospitals that shuttled the killer from one facility to the next. The Good Nurse has since been lauded as our generation’s In Cold Blood, and Graeber has appeared on programs like “60 Minutes” and “The Katie Couric Show” to tell the story of how he gained exclusive access to the killer.
Graeber wasn’t always this in demand, however. In fact his rise has been anything but linear, taking him from the Beacon on Nantucket to the Budapest Sun in Hungary to the Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia. The tipping point finally came after he narrowly escaped the civil war in Cambodia and returned once again to this attic on Nantucket. “I just sat down here and started to write out what I had seen,” Greaber says. “After seventy-five pages I thought I had something and cold called Harper’s Magazine.” Harper’s bought the piece on the spot, his first feature, and so began Graeber’s career in magazines. “Nantucket made it all possible,” he says. “It’s the best place to support a writing habit.” Indeed, Graeber is now one of the most sought-after writers in the game today. “I think I can change people’s minds,” he says. “I think I can make a weapon out of words and use that weapon for good.”
Throughout my day with Charles Graeber, I continually heard the voice in my head saying, “Is this guy for real?” Sleeping on the streets of Budapest? Being blessed by the Dalai Lama in India? Writing a New York Times bestseller in an attic on Nantucket? It all sounds too phantasmal to be true, as if the greatest story Charlie Graeber will write is his own. But it all checks out. Go online and there he is in a tuxedo accepting the “Best International Reporting” award in the same whiskey-tinged timbre he used with me all day. The fact is that the adventures that defined Charlie Graeber’s formative years seem to have stripped him down to his essence. All the madness and chaos of a life off the grid yielded a writer who doesn’t need to mince his words or stretch the truth. He tells his stories without compromise, and leaves it up to readers to buckle up and take the ride. If they dare.