I really wanted to travel, and I worked out that you could pay for travelling with freelance writing. I read a lot of magazines and newspapers, and worked out which ones I wanted to write for. As an American, I didn't really have any contacts, but I called people up out of the blue.
I was mostly travelling in Eastern Europe - I did Russian at university and was studying Polish at Oxford - and nobody really had stringers there; this was 1987, and it was a very boring time from a news point of view. But I always found it interesting, and the mood was changing towards the end of the Eighties.
The first piece I did was for The Economist, and it was about a dissident movement in Poland, called the Orange Alternative - a group of students who decided to protest against Communism by taking it seriously. So, on the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, they would march on the street wearing red. The police didn't know how to react, and would end up beating them up.
Then, really on a whim, I had lunch with the then European editor of the Economist, Daniel Franklin, and asked if he needed a Warsaw correspondent. He said yes, and they gave me some pathetic amount of money, but at the time that was enough to rent a very nice flat in Warsaw. The idea was to spend a year or two there and then come back and finish my DPhil, but of course while I was out there, in the winter of 1988-89, Communism collapsed. And I was in a really wonderful position, working for The Economist, and then becoming The Independent's Warsaw correspondent as well.
And it was one fantastic story after the other: I travelled all over central and eastern Europe, and was there at the Berlin Wall. I probably could have stayed indefinitely, but I then got a book contract and wrote about the western part of what was the Soviet Union - places such as Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania. Then, partly because of the book, and mainly because The Economist offered me a job in London, I came back to England.
And so I had a brief interlude on The Economist as Africa editor, which was rather fun, but when Dominic Lawson offered me a job as foreign editor on the Spectator in 1992, when I was 26, I thought that would be even more fun - and I would be able to pursue my interest in Eastern Europe.
I was at the Spectator for three years, and in the final year I was deputy editor. It has a funny position in British journalism, and it was quite well-read, so that meant I was quite well-read, and through it I met lots of people. Briefly, I also had a column on The Daily Telegraph while I was there, which was supposed to be on foreign policy - but I don't think that's a good subject to have a column on in a British newspaper.
Dominic Lawson then went to The Sunday Telegraph, and I was simultaneously offered a job by Max Hastings at the London Evening Standard, to do something completely different: write about Britain. Of course, I didn't travel quite as much, but Max did let me do a lot of things that weren't in the remit of the job: I did some reporting in Israel, and I covered the American elections in 1996.
The reason I left, this summer, was mainly because of a combination of things happening at once: I got pregnant, I got a second book contract, and Dominic Lawson offered me a column on The Sunday Telegraph. The book is a history of the Soviet concentration camp system, and will take several years to write, and I hope that will combine with the baby and the Sunday Telegraph job.
What I like about journalism is that you can ring up interesting people and ask them questions. And, every once in a while, I'll find myself in a weird foreign country surrounded by people who speak a language I don't know, and I'll feel really happy. One of the most fun reporting trips I've been on was to China, two years ago, to the Women's Conference in Peking for the Telegraph. There's nothing I like better than to go to foreign countries and find out what's going on, and then put it together and make it interesting to people here who don't necessarily know anything about it.
Interview by Scott HughesReuse content